NEW DELHI: Who started the current controversy over the Rafale fighter jets? The military fingers point straight at Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman whose two comments on the issue within two months reflect the confusion within the government. And have provided the opening for Congress President Rahul Gandhi to wage what can now be described as a Twitter war against the government on the Rafale deal.

"When will the PM break his silence, and speak on the Rafale deal," he said after PM Modi's takedown of Congress leaders in parliament.

The official hesitation in outlining details for the Rafale deal personally cleared by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has encouraged the Congress party to keep needling the government on this issue. At a press meet in November last year, just over two months ago, Sitharaman responded to the political pressure with a first statement on the issue. “ Ministry on this issue with, “I am not shying away from giving figures” and turning to the Union Defence Secretary Sanjay Mitra by her side, directed him to share the details.

The Defence Minister insisted that the 36 aircraft deal was finalised by PM Modi as the “situation was grim” and the government was required to move fast. She said that the current agreement---that brought the 126 aircraft deal negotiated by the Congress led government to 36 agreed to by PM Modi---was at a far better price.

“…not a single procedure was violated in procuring the jets…These allegations are shameful…the deal was finalized following a transparent procedure,” Sitharaman said with Mitra and Deputy Chief of Air Staff Air Marshal Raghunath Nambiar sitting in on the media meet. She claimed that the deal was cheaper.

In December the Minister again assured Parliament through a written response that her government had ensured a “better price” for the jets as compared to the 126 fighter project that was being negotiated earlier by the UPA government. She admitted though that the two deals "cannot be directly compared" because the "deliverables" are significantly different. Under the MMRCA (medium multi-role combat aircraft) project being negotiated by the UPA, 18 Rafales were to come in flyaway condition, with the rest 108 being licensed produced in India with the transfer of technology (ToT).

"There is no increase in the cost. Instead, a better price has been ensured.... Though there is no ToT in the procurement of the 36 Rafales (coming in flyaway condition), the provision of 50% offsets has been retained.The delivery schedule, maintenance arrangement and product support under the inter-governmental agreement (inked with France on September 23, 2016), are more beneficial," the Defence Minister said.

And now in her third statement in just over two months the Minister has reneged on all the earlier assurances maintaining instead that the details of the Rafale jet fighter deal cannot be revealed because of a secrecy pact with France, and hence “classified information.”

Sitharaman was responding to a question by Samajwadi Party Rajya Sabha member Naresh Agrawal asking why the government was not disclosing details of the deal in which the Congress has alleged that the price of the fighter jets being paid by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government is higher than what was finalised by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in a previous deal.

In her written response the Defence Minister stated, "As per Article 10 of the Inter-Governmental Agreement between Governments of India and France on the purchase of Rafale aircraft, the protection of the classified information and material exchanged under IGA is governed by the provisions of the Security Agreement signed between Government of France and Government of India in 2008.”

And in response to a question whether a private sector company was included in the deal, Sitharaman said that neither any public sector undertaking nor private sector industry was included in the agreement.

Sitharaman’s predecessor Manohar Parrikar too had been caught off guard by the Rafale deal and went into a few flip flops before he settled somewhat on the issue, maintaining silence as his best option. PM Modi stunned his Minister when during a visit to France in April 2015 he waved off the tedious negotiations between the two countries that had got stuck between the officials of both sides, by announcing the purchase of 36 fighters in ‘ready to fly’ condition by his government.

The deal then went under the covers with Parrikar making a valiant but garbed effort to answer questions soon after the visit was over. The Citizen had reported then of whispers in the corridors of power that the then Defence Minister had not been prepared for the PM’s announcement, and been caught off guard. More so as just before the Prime Minister’s visit Parrikar had told reporters outside Parliament that the contractual terms in the Request for Information and the pricing, on which the two sides were stuck, were “non-negotiable.” And that a final decision would be taken after the contract negotiation committee submitted its report in April.

Parrikar, in fact, through dizzying variations confused himself as well as all those reading his interviews in the newspapers, or listening to him on television. Till several days after the ‘new’ deal was announced, Parrikar spent more time in evading questions then answering these initially. An example:

“That is the only solution. In fact, only [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi could have taken this kind of decision. [When it comes to] Prime Ministers in the past many years, probably Atalji [Bihari Vajpayee] showed some decision-making ability. However, I would like to add that the decision is not complete. The decision is only to acquire 36 [aircraft] at better terms. I was watching the Congress press conference, I was surprised they are not aware of exactly what had happened. They probably didn’t even take the required trouble of getting more information. Actually, [Congress leader and former Defence Ministry A.K.] Antony should have got it because he knows so many in the Defence Ministry. The decision is a joint statement at this moment. The rest is being discussed.”

A month after the visit the clarity still seems to be missing. In an interview to the Economic Times on May 11 2015, Parrikar said:

“On the Rafale deal, for example, we are ordering just 36. If we had ordered 126, it would have been 3.75 times the cost. Yes, there are money issues but spending more effectively is more important.”

And again, “The basic message is that the Rafale deal has been restricted in number. By doing this, we will free about Rs 60,000-65,000 crore - money which will be used for Make in India. Even in the Rafale deal, we will have 50% offsets. So this will take care of partial Make in India. But more than that, we now have money released for activities that can be carried out in improving and speeding up the LCA (Light Combat Aircraft). We can have 10-12 squadrons as MiG 21 replacements.”

But within a day this garrulousness was replaced with a tight lipped, "I'm not saying we will buy more Rafale; I'm not saying we will not buy more.”

And again a few days later in May, 2015 “I will not talk about it until all talks are complete. Then we will come very clear, transparently. You don’t discuss issues when they are under negotiation and consideration. It will be foolish. It’s just like you don’t discuss publicly what is in the court if you a party. Third person can always do it. I can’t do it because I am a party to it, my ministry is a party to it. Let them have the talks, let them come out with some conclusion… It can assure you it will be so transparent you will not have to ask again.”

Two years later the transparency remains elusive. Minister Sitharaman from verbal assurances has fallen into ‘secret’ silence again even as the Congress notches up it’s “all is not right” campaign against the deal. Incidentally the figure for 36 Rafale aircraft is reportedly around 8.2 billion US dollars. The figure, not finalised but floated at the time, for the 126 fighter jets was between 18 -22 billion US dollars.