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SHUBHDA CHAUDHARY | 19 SEPTEMBER, 2018

Silent on FDI in Defence, Sitharaman Accuses Congress of Sidelining HAL in Rafale Deal

Report from the interaction with Nirmala Sitharaman at the Indian Women Press Corps office


Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman addressed a group of 60 senior women journalists in New Delhi, primarily about the Rafale deal controversy. During the 50-minute question and answer round, Sitharaman clearly stated the Bharatiya Janata Party’s stand, defended the intention and impact of the government's defence policies and also confidently stated that the BJP would return to power after the 2019 elections. The following is an insight into the defence minister’s point of view on various controversial issues.

Whose assessment was it that Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) was not capable of producing Rafale jets?

The Rafale deal did not happen during UPA rule. The production terms were not agreed upon. HAL and Rafale did not go together. But being repeatedly told that the NDA government did not take care of HAL is a misplaced assumption. We have taken care of the interests of both the Indian Air Force and HAL. Facts are before us. We have focused on the inter-governmental agreement. The above mentioned question is for HAL to answer.

The foreign minister recently visited Moscow. Has the S-400 anti-ballistic missile system deal been finalised?

Negotiations with Russia are at the final level. We will see further when the Russian president visits India. As of now, negotiations are complete.

Recently, A.K. Anthony stated that if the Rafale deal is so cheap, why not purchase all 126 jets. What’s your response?

Well, A.K. Anthony is a senior leader. Since he has the experience of doing negotiations, he knows how they happen. He knows that such equipment is not over-the-counter products to be purchased. If the issue is, as the Congress points out, that since we have negotiated, we should buy more aircrafts, they should know that our basic price is 9% less than theirs. The ordering of 126 aircrafts has a timeline and an escalation price involved in the process. Currently, our ideal strength is 42. It was in 2013 during the UPA’s rule that it was lowered to 33.

The prime minister mentioned a permanent commission at the Red Fort. What’s the update?

The rules and regulations for the IAF have been outlined. We are currently waiting for the army and navy. After that, there would be more segments for women to join in the permanent commission.

Why is there no joint parliamentary committee about corruption in the Rafale deal?

We have been responding to this question in Parliament.

Is there going to be a downsizing of the army?

I have no such proposal.

The Congress asked for life-cycle costs to be included (in Rafale). What do you have to say?

If it is being conveyed (through the question) that we went about the Rafale deal unilaterally and did not include life-cycle costs, it is wrong. The PM does not talk about the intricate details of what is being negotiated. These discussions are done with the panel of experts, often belonging to DRDO and other organisations. A party like Congress that has been in power for more than 60 years should know this very well.

Thoughts on being a woman defence minister?

It’s alright.

Was the PM authorised to take the Rafale deal without informing the Cabinet Committee on Security? There are rumours of kickback negotiations.

Let rumours gather strength. The PM did not go in April 2015 to announce the deal. He just initiated a process. If it became a deal, it would be after the CCS had cleared it. The meeting between the PM and the French President in 2015 was only an expression. The actual working happened a year and a half later in August 2016. Post which, the deal was signed in September 2016.

Will the BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) happen every year? What about Nepal also participating with China?

We need to know what the picture is regarding the BIMSTEC situation. Nepal sent observers. They did the same with the Chinese exercise. Their Chief has been recently appointed. There were customary agreements. The commitments have already been made. Explanations have been given by their side. We need to trust it.

The Congress says that the CBI is changing its stand when it comes to Vijay Mallya. Why was the prime minister's office not in the loop?

I will not comment on the CBI’s position. There is a high court ruling from Kolkata on how Vijay Mallya could or could not be detained in India. There are many layers to this debate. Even after Kingfisher closed in 2011, loans were generously being given. The debate needs to be riveted on that. Why did the UPA not indulge in getting the public money back?

Currently, the border situation is deteriorating. What’s the government’s response?

There is no escalation in violence. The situation is very much under control.

Do you think the BJP will come back after the 2019 elections?

Yes, I am absolutely sure. We are coming back.

Is the current weapons suite with the Rafale deal better?

I am not sure of the UPA’s agreement, or should it be called a non-agreement. Sorry for being rigorous about it. We are comparing it to what? There was no agreement done previously. We are all thinking individuals. Please compare like with like.

Anil Ambani and his company are the main elements of controversy in the Rafale deal. It is an election year. How does the government want to counter such a perception?

We will counter it by constantly putting facts in front of everyone. But why are you asking me this question? I have not put his name in the inter-governmental agreement. No commercial entity can be involved in an inter-governmental agreement. I am not buying from A, B or C. I have no vendors in this case apart from Dassault.

What is the foreign direct investment in defence?

FDI in the defence sector goes through the automatic route. We don’t state the specific amount of it.

How are you sure about the BJP getting back? Take for consideration the farmer strikes and suicides.

We have massively worked for the betterment of farmers and to solve the agrarian crisis. For example, the consumption of pulses in India is 23 million tons while the production is only 16 million tons. This is a fact prevalent for the past 20-25 years. But in the past two years, we have been able to increase the production and now, we even export pulses. I myself went to Myanmar regarding this. In fact we are even talking with Canada regarding cheap pulse import. That has helped the farmers.

Since you hail from JNU, what is your current response to the ABVP's activism and violence there?

Well, quarrels and debates during elections between different student parties is normal. But the kind of ideology that has been prevalent in the campus for the past 2-3 years is absolutely Anti-India. These forces which have been publishing pamphlets and brochures clearly state their ideologies.

 

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