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Ministry of Defence had objected to parallel negotiations by PMO, then Defence minister Parrikar called it an “over reaction”

A new political storm erupted over the controversial Rafale Deal, on Friday (February 8), after a report published by The Hindu newspaper reproduced documents purportedly prepared by the Defence Ministry in November 2015 which claimed that officers in the Prime Minister’s office were carrying out “parallel parleys” with officers of the French government to negotiate the multi-million-crore jet purchase.

The report averred to file notings made by then Defence Secretary G Mohan Kumar calling the attention of then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar stating that “it is desirable that such discussions be avoided by the PMO as it undermines our negotiation process seriously.”

Kumar’s noting was on an observation made in the document, signed by then deputy secretary SK Sharma, which said: “such parallel discussions by the PMO has weakened the negotiation position of the MoD (Ministry of Defence) and Indian Negotiating Team (constituted by the MoD to negotiate the Rafale Deal with the French). We may advise PMO that any officers who are not part of Indian Negotiating Team may refrain from having parallel parleys with officers of the French Government. In case the PMO is not confident about the outcome of negotiations being carried out by the MoD, a revised modality of negotiations to be led by PMO at appropriate level may be adopted in the case.”

In notings made against Kumar’s comment, Parrikar responded: “It appears that PMO and French President’s Office are monitoring the progress of the issue which was an outcome of the summit meeting. Para 5 (about parallel discussions, reproduced above) appears to be an overreaction. Defence secretary may resolve issue/matter in consultation with the principal secretary to PM.”

While the report in The Hindu did not mention the file noting made by Parrikar, the remaining contents of the document were enough ammunition for the Opposition, particularly the Congress party, to take its diatribe against Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the Rafale Deal a notch higher.

Uproarious scenes were witnessed in Parliament over the new expose, which the Opposition claimed indicted the Prime Minister, and Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge revived the party’s demand for a joint parliamentary committee probe into the Rafale Deal. At an impromptu press conference earlier in the day, Congress president Rahul Gandhi used the news report to reiterate his ‘chowkidar chor hai’ barb against Prime Minister Modi.

Union defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman, dubbed the report by The Hindu as misleading and attacked the Congress-led Opposition for “flogging a dead horse”. In her zealousness to defend the Prime Minister, Sitharaman, however, ended up strengthening the notion that there was indeed something fishy about the negotiations which ended with Anil Ambani’s Reliance Defence elbowing out the Indian government’s Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) as the offset partner of Dassault Aviation in the jet purchase deal.

Sitharaman told the Lok Sabha that The Hindu report does not mention the then defence minister’s response. “Then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar ji replied to that MoD note that remain calm, nothing to worry, everything is going alright (sic),” Sitharaman said. In an attempt to turn the tables on the Congress, Sitharaman sought to know from the Opposition party about the alleged interference that the National Advisory Council, headed by UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, had in the running of the then UPA government and its PMO.

The political powwow over the latest expose in Rafale is unlikely to lead to any real answers on how the deal was negotiated and whether Prime Minister Modi’s office indeed forced the French government to accept an inexperienced defence manufacturer like Anil Ambani’s Reliance Defence over the time tested HAL.

However, the MoD note does raise crucial questions of propriety, and more significantly, over the likely possibility of the Modi government having misled the Supreme Court when it was hearing petitions demanding investigations into the Rafale Deal.

The Supreme Court’s verdict that rejected demands for a probe into the Rafale Deal was largely based on two premises – first, that an audit by the Comptroller and Auditor General into the deal had found nothing wrong and second, a confidential reply by the Centre, submitted to the court in a sealed cover, which purportedly said that the PMO had no role in the negotiations with the French government on the final blueprint of the Rafale Deal.

Soon after the top court’s verdict, it transpired that the CAG had not prepared any report on the Rafale Deal and was, in fact, still in the process of preparing its draft report. Now, with the latest expose, it comes to light that not only was the PMO actively involved in the Rafale discussions with the French government but that these “parallel parleys” had been objected to by a section of officers in the Defence ministry.

These two points now show that the Modi government, to put it very mildly, misled the Supreme Court on the two key issues over which a probe into the Rafale Deal was averted. It remains to be seen if the top court will be open to revisiting its verdict in the Rafale case when petitions seeking a review of its judgment are heard and if it would haul up the Modi government for apparent contempt of court, if not abject perjury.

—India Legal Bureau

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