‘It is absolutely wrong to say Modi government has taken away from HAL and given it to the brother of somebody’

Facing opposition onslaught on the Rafale deal, Union defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman has strongly defended the Modi government. She speaks to Shanmughasundaram J about how the air force had been kept in the loop all through the deal, why purchase of the multi-role fighter jets had to be clinched, and what are the disputes between air force and HAL:

Why was IAF’s requirement cut from 126 Rafale fighters to 36? 

UPA’s deal was to purchase 18 aircraft in flyaway condition. The rest were to be manufactured in India. Neither the 18 nor the rest happened. Since 2000, air force has been desperately asking for help saying its squadron strength is coming down. Nothing happened for 10 years and the air force was in deep trouble. I explained in Parliament how our neighbour was getting emboldened. We increased the purchase of flyaway aircraft from 18 to 36. There is no reduction from 126 to 36. For the rest, we have already issued an RFI for them to be manufactured in India through a strategic partnership. Anybody can join hands with them. It could be HAL or anybody else.

Was the IAF kept in the loop while finalising the Rafale deal? 

Nothing in the government of India, at least in the defence ministry, happens without the service concerned pitching in. I explained in Parliament that every time emergency purchases – a maximum of two squadrons – were made, air force had advised. I have explained how Mirage was bought from France and how Sukhoi was bought from Russia. That was the case when purchases were made from the US too. Each time, it has been two squadrons; so, it is this time too. 

What are the issues in disbursing payment to HAL? 

If HAL says its payments are delayed, IAF says deliveries are delayed. HAL’s argument is that IAF keeps changing its standards. IAF’s stand is specifications can be frozen only if delivery happens within a reasonable time. IAF asks, if delivery is delayed by several years, is it under compulsion to buy outdated equipment or can it ask for an upgrade?

This reflects poorly on the capability of the PSUs manufacturing aircraft and weapons.

Air force, army and navy have to sit with HAL and see how best they can speed up things. Ministry has to work towards strengthening existing capabilities. All these cannot be demanded of the Modi government in three years. They had not happened in 30 years. When the government delivers some rapid changes, questions are being raised as to why HAL is not being paid. Public accounts committee headed by Shri Mallikarjun Kharge has written about issues concerning HAL. When Dassault-HAL deal was not happening, why didn’t the then raksha mantri do something to ensure it? I can’t answer that question. If HAL has not got the Rafale order now, nobody has got it. It is just 18 flyaway increased to 36.

Congress has been demanding a JPC probe into Rafale. Why do you oppose it?

What is the need for a JPC probe when there is no scam in the Rafale deal? In the case of 2G, CAG had come out with a detailed report. In the case of Bofors, media went all out to see where the money came from, who were the individuals, what connections they had.

Congress has said that when it comes to power, it would make HAL the offset partner for Rafale.

They can do what they want. First of all, I have no official record on who is the offset partner for Rafale deal. And that’s not a flaw. They have time to tell us when and with whom they are going. It need not necessarily be for production. What was supposed to go to HAL through Dassault (as per UPA’s proposed deal) is not what is going to A, B or C now. It is absolutely wrong to say that Modi government has taken away from HAL and given it to the brother of somebody. If at all something is going there, it is the offset. I don’t know it officially. This is an absurd twist that what Dassault was supposed to give to HAL for the manufacture of 126 aircraft has been given to Reliance in Nagpur.

Offset policy demands Dassault spend at least 50% of the money in India. Now, we are only talking about offset. It can go to one company or 100 companies. It can be for the production of tyre or tube or wing or fuselage of some other defence equipment. The offset OEM can do anything with that money.

You said Congress is a pawn in an international corporate rivalry. What did you mean? 

They did not buy the equipment when air force was desperate. Even after making provision to buy 18 flyway aircraft, they did not place the order. The then defence minister asked, where is the money? When you had already made provision in the budget, how could you ask where is the money? As they claim that 95% of the negotiation was over and only the last 5% was pending, something else has to be there. You didn’t buy it and when we are buying through an inter-governmental agreement, you are trying to stop it. It gives the impression that you don’t want the order. Is national interest there in your mind at all?