We are also thinking in terms of having the three forces open institutions like the NDA, Indian Military Academy to women, said Nirmala Sitharaman

by Supriya Shrinate

From Make in India to the Rafale deal controversy and opening up the National Defence Academy to women, defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman has a candid conversation with ET Now’s Supriya Shrinate on many issues at the 2018 ET Awards. Edited excerpts:

Is Election 2019 going to be about the economy or has the agenda been hijacked by irrelevant issues? 

Well, it will certainly be the economy and development. We will showcase what we have achieved... in a sense with pride, but more with a sense of responsibility… I don’t know what you are referring to when you say irrelevant issues. In a multi-party democracy, many issues which you want or do not want, will be raised. It is for us to make it relevant or not so relevant with our answers.

How are you going to manoeuvre the economic landscape to 2019 when the political narrative itself is intensifying? 

Well, the narrative related to economics is, I think, very well understood even by the common man. And it is not just the insurance policies, it is not the reaching of the last village with electricity… but I think fundamental changes for the economy are where you are looking at… housing, doubling of income for the farmers, ensuring everyone gets some kind of access to financial inclusion. These are reforms, which, in spite of being so heavily jargoned, the common man understands… and therefore is standing with the Prime Minister… this will definitely form the core of what we are going to talk during the elections.

Has the Rafale controversy been a setback to the government’s blemish-free track record for the first four years? 

Absolutely not. I do not want to speak with undue haste to tell the opposition they are chasing something which does not exist. Four and a half years without corruption, without even a whiff of it or without even a whisper… particularly Ministry of Defence without middlemen... going at a good speed to procure things which are necessary for the armed forces.

But this is now a political war which has also spilled on to the judicial arena and is that worrisome?

I don’t think it is a political war which has spilled on to the judiciary. It’s good that people have referred it to the court. We are quite happy to state all the facts there, just as we are saying it outside.

Has the Opposition managed to put the onus on you to prove it clean?

Well, being in the government, I think the onus certainly lies on us to prove it clean… If you notice the way in which the narrative on the Rafale procurement issue is going, they start with one thing, then they move over to the second and a third. First it was you have paid at least five times more than what we (would) have paid… They (Congress) have not bought one aircraft… during their 10 years. Then next, it was did you give a particular company — the offset — with a mala fide intention? Now, it is a question of did the Prime Minister hurry with the procedure? So they started with one thing without doing their homework, (then) they are moving on hoping against hope that something will stick to us. There isn’t anything wrong with the procedure, the methodology, the price, the technical details, the list of ammunition, so they don’t know how far they have to go on with it.

What is wrong with the government knowing who the offset partner is? Has politics mired that debate?

Oh, no! I am sorry, I think I have to explain this. We are not saying we do not want to know. As per the rules, the original equipment manufacturer (OEM), in this case, Dassault, has the right to decide whether they want one offset partner or many… And once they have made up their mind and their contracts are commercially done, they will certainly have to tell the government. We are not saying we do not want to hear you. We need to hear you… because they have to spend that 30% to 50% of the price of the commodity they are selling us… Just because my opposition wants to know it yesterday, I can’t put pressure on my OEM… By rule, they can tell me even next year.

Where is ‘Make in India’? 

In defence, ‘Make in India’ is happening in a big way and it is not happening without orders coming from the ministry. Under the strategic partnership model, I have started giving orders for ‘Make in India.’ I do not want to name the companies... two of them have been given major orders for ATAGS — towed artillery guns — being made in India. Similarly, there are many other orders which I can list now, which I could not two years ago because the strategic partnership module itself was being worked out. Now I can tell you ‘Make in India’ for defence is being recognised, because it is already happening. Due orders are being placed by the ministry for the Indian manufacturers.

When do we see women in combat?

Soon, I suppose… after Prime Minister made that announcement in Red Fort about the short service commission, women are now getting an opportunity to become permanent commissioned officers. We are also thinking in terms of having the three forces open institutions like the NDA, Indian Military Academy to women... the combat at the border areas, I think, is going to take a bit longer.