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Rethink comes after Venugopal’s bumbling volte face on the “stolen” Rafale files claim even as defence minister endorses his U-Turn

Defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman may have backed Attorney General KK Venugopal’s awkward volte face about the Rafale documents submitted as part of the review petition before the Supreme Court not being “stolen” but “photocopies of the original” secret files, but the Centre has clearly been left embarrassed by the obvious gaffe of its top law officer.

The Centre may, on March 14, ask Solicitor General Tushar Mehta to assist Attorney General Venugopal in arguing against the Rafale review petitions, sources have told India Legal.

On Friday evening, in an interview to news agency PTI, Venugopal said that the Opposition’s allegation that while arguing in the Supreme Court on Wednesday he had claimed that documents, protected under the Official Secrets Act, on which the Rafale review petitions placed reliance were part of a file that was “stolen from the defence ministry” was “wholly incorrect”. “The statement that files have been stolen is wholly incorrect,” Venugopal told the news agency.

Soon after Venugopal’s U-turn, Union defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman posted on Twitter: “Learned AG KK Venugopal told @PTI_News the Rafale documents were not stolen from the Defence Ministry & what he meant in his submission before the Supreme Court was that petitioners in the application used “photocopies of the original” papers, deemed secret by the government.” Sitharaman had kept silent on Venugopal’s stunning claim of the “stolen files” from her ministry since Wednesday even as Opposition leaders and a small section of the media wondered why the defence minister, who had addressed the Parliament last month on the revelations made by The Hindu, based on the supposedly stolen documents, had failed to inform MPs that a “secret” file linked to a sensitive defence deal had gone missing.

It may be noted that, on Wednesday, while arguing against the review petitions filed by former union finance minister Yashwant Sinha and others, Venugopal had urged the top court’s bench led by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi that the pleas must be dismissed because they are based on documents from a “stolen” file. He had proceeded to submit before the bench that an investigation into the theft of the file had already been ordered and that the government was, in fact, contemplating filing an FIR against The Hindu newspaper and news agency ANI which had first put these documents in the public domain.

Venugopal’s submission had immediately caused a political uproar with Congress president Rahul Gandhi claiming that the new slogan of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government appears to be “gayab ho gaya (gone missing)”. The claim had also triggered a storm on social media with users posting memes and jokes about the Attorney General’s claim and wondering if Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first Prime Minister who Modi repeatedly blames for everything wrong with the country today, had stolen the files.

While Venugopal has, for now, got the backing of the Union defence minister over his evidently inept clarification, sources told India Legal that there is considerable “unease” within the central government over his gaffe. Sources said that the Attorney General, “perhaps because he is getting on in the years (at 88 years of age, Venugopal is the oldest Attorney General of India since independence), needs some assistance to argue the government’s case in such sensitive matters”.

Sources say that the Union law ministry might ask Solicitor General Tushar Mehta “to help” Venugopal in presenting the arguments against the Rafale review petitions when they come up for hearing in the apex court next, on March 14.

The Centre is also wary of the reaction that Venugopal’s clarification may draw from the Supreme Court since his earlier claim of the “stolen” files is well documented in the top court’s proceedings of March 6. The government is aware that adverse remarks by the Supreme Court could bring more embarrassment for Modi over the continuing Rafale controversy at a time when an announcement of the Lok Sabha poll schedule is keenly awaited.

—India Legal Bureau

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