Finance minister Arun Jaitley.
Finance minister Arun Jaitley.

Jaitley takes battle to opposition camp on Rafale fighter jet deal

Finance minister asks Rahul Gandhi to answer 15 questions before levelling graft charges against govt

New Delhi: Finance minister Arun Jaitley on Wednesday took the battle to the opposition camp, challenging Congress president Rahul Gandhi to answer 15 questions before levelling corruption allegations on the purchase of the Rafale fighter aircraft from France.

Gandhi had earlier said that the deal signed by the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government smacked of corruption and crony capitalism. In fact, the Congress has finalized plans for a media blitzkrieg and ground-level campaign to corner the Modi government over the deal in the run-up to the 2019 general elections. The party had also raised the issue during the monsoon session of Parliament.

In response to Gandhi’s accusations, Jaitley first took to Facebook, accusing the previous Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government of compromising with national security by delaying the purchase of the multi-role fighter aircraft by more than a decade.

He also accused Gandhi and the Congress party of running a false campaign against the NDA government on pricing and procedural irregularities.

Later in the day, in an interview with ANI news agency, the senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader said Gandhi had lowered the standard of debate to the “kindergarten" level and asked him to respond to 15 questions, including the frequent flip-flop by Gandhi on the pricing of the aircraft, and whether he was aware of the fact that the price quoted by the manufacturer included an escalation cost and a rupee-euro foreign exchange variation clause.

The two factors, Jaitley reasoned, had actually made the UPA-shortlisted aircraft 20% more expensive than what was negotiated by the NDA government in 2015.

Unfazed by Jaitley’s aggressive stance, Gandhi shot back on Twitter , thanking the finance minister for “bringing the nation’s attention back to the GREAT #RAFALE ROBBERY!" and demanded a joint parliamentary panel probe. “Problem is, your Supreme Leader is protecting his friend, so this may be inconvenient. Do check & revert in 24 hrs. We’re waiting!" Gandhi added.

Anil Ambani-led Reliance Defence has a private tie-up with Dassault Aviation, maker of Rafale, to fulfil the offset obligations following the purchase of the aircraft.

In his blog, Jaitley said it was on the basis of the request for proposal issued by the UPA government in 2007 that two vendors, Dassault and EADS, were found compliant with the government’s requirements. Thereafter “it took the UPA five more years to commence the negotiations and in January 2012, the Contract Negotiation Committee (CNC) determined Dassault Aviation to be L1."

“For reasons best known to the UPA government in 2012, the deal was directed to be re-examined, which effectively meant that the entire 11-year exercise was abandoned and the process was to be undertaken afresh," Jaitley said, adding that it led to the depleting combat strength of India’s fighter squadron.

“Was this delay and eventual abatement of the purchase by the UPA based on collateral considerations as had been witnessed in earlier transactions, such as the purchase of the 155 mm Bofors gun?" Jaitley asked, in a tacit reference to the allegations that the Rajiv Gandhi-led government had received kickbacks following the purchase of Swedish artillery guns in 1986. According to Jaitley, in 2015, “India decided to procure 36 Rafale aircraft from the French government on terms better than the ones conveyed by Dassault in the bid of 2007", adding that the “slow and casual approach of the UPA government seriously compromised national security requirements". Jaitley asked whether Gandhi could deny the fact that the Modi government had no contract with any private company to supply the aircraft.

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