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INTERVIEW | Don't mind arranging a tutorial for Rahul Gandhi on Rafale deal: Nirmala Sitharaman

In an exclusive interview to CNN-News 18, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman spoke about the controversy surrounding the Rafale deal and Congress' relentless attack on the Modi government.

Marya Shakil

Marya Shakil

CNN-News 18

In an exclusive interview to CNN-News 18, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman spoke about the controversy surrounding the Rafale deal and Congress' relentless attack on the Modi government.

Edited excerpts: 

Marya Shakil: You spoke for two hours and you put out facts in the public domain. There was no rhetoric in that speech. But Rahul Gandhi is not convinced. Do you think this battle is more political in nature - less on facts and more on perception?

Nirmala Sitharaman: The battle can be defined by you by the way you want, but the battle is not about less facts, It's rich with facts. I'm giving all the facts, Arun Jaitley is giving the facts. Unfortunately, Rahul Gandhi, the leader and Congress chief is scared of facts. This is something I said in the House also. I don't want to sound sarcastic but I think the Congress party is not giving him enough briefing on the matter. So when the facts are given, and still if he has some more questions, he is welcome to ask. But he is asking the same questions for which in the first stage, answers are given. You build it on and go to the second stage, I don't mind. But none of the fundamental facts that have been given are ever taken cognisance of and he harps on the same thing.

Sometimes - with an element of sarcasm, if you permit me - if Congress party is unable to tutor him, I don't mind arranging for a tutorial. But please, get yourself tutored. Haven't I said not just once but 2-3 times that if he only sits with AK Antony and gets the details, I'm sure he would understand the fundamental facts. He is neither getting tutored by Antony nor is he probably reading newspapers. Even yesterday, the report carried the fact that I have said in the floor of the House that these are in the pipeline. You accuse me of "show me where the contract money has gone." Money from ministries or army headquarters reaches HAL through the process and the process has been granted. 'N' number of contracts have been signed for this amount. We have to say yes before the money is released also. But you should understand that these are stages. That's why I used this langauge - they are in the pipeline. But you don't listen and say "Oh, she claimed that this much was given."

Marya Shakil: You said Rahul is probably scared. What makes you think that he is scared?

Nirmala Sitharaman: I think so because they started a campaign on falsehoods. It starts with the premise that the PM is a chor. Now what is that? The process works, a decision is pending, you reached a deadlock, the urgency with which the Air Force wants the aircrafts, then the process works, all this will have to be understood by us before you conclude saying so-and-so is a chor. This is wrong. You don't besmirch people who are holding positions. Here is a man out on bail, calling others chor? Clear your record first. There was not even a whisper of allegation when all the years he was CM, and the he's led a clean govt and you go on calling him 'corrupt,' 'chor', etc. That's why I'm saying, he's scared of facts. If he gives the facts, the language that he's used, the brazen campaign on falsehood that he has conducted, will all fall flat.

Marya Shakil: Rahul Gandhi says he wants a 15-minute debate with PM Narendra Modi.

Nirmala Sitharaman: The Finance Minister is the leader of the house in Rajya Sabha and also the former Raksha Mantri. He's held that position twice before Parrikar took over and before I came, and then I'm here in the capacity of the Raksha Mantri. He fielded us because we have held this portfolio and I'm holding the portfolio now. Hence it is only appropriate that the concerned minister speaks.

Marya Shakil: Do you think the PM will speak?

Nirmala Sitharaman: Marya, I also want to ask you - Are we going to just go with the narrative Congress gives, or will the media please - like you requested me and I am talking to you - make the Congress chief sit and ask him the questions? Saying "Hang on, the former Raksha Mantri, current Raksha Mantri have all given you detailed replies. Have you heard them? Will you give some answers to them rather than throwing meaningless challenges?" Wouldn't you want to do that for the sake of the people of this country? Someone sets the narrative saying "All right, I don't care." Let me remind you. When I stood up to give the answer, the very same Congress party and its leadership in the Lok Sabha stood up to say what? "We want the PM to answer." Well, I'm the concerned minister. You asked for a debate in the House and House's procedures says "After you and all respective leaders of the other parties speak, it is for the concerned minister to give a reply."

You asked for a debate, and what was your conduct? When the minister gets up to answer -- it can be me, it can be anybody -- the concerned minister gets up to answer and you say "No no, we want the PM." And when the Finance Minister gives it...see, the process, you know it well, somebody moves the motion, they speak. Then somebody from the treasury benches, somebody else is asked to speak. That person speaks. In this case, it was former Raksha Mantri, current FM Jaitley, who stood up to speak. Then the turn would be of other parties to speak, then everybody finishes and teh concerned minister replies. You started the debate and Rahul Gandhi spoke. After that, from the treasury benches, Jaitley gets up to respond or participate in the debate. What was the scene where the Congress and the other parties were seated? Papers were given to young MPs to make aeroplanes to throw at us. Jaitley is talking, papers are being passed and arrows were being thrown at us. Photographs were taken with phones with poses. There, when the House was not adjourned, when Jaitley was speaking. Would you feel hurt, would you feel let down, would you feel disappointed?  You asked for a debate. You have made serious allegations against the government. We are ready to give answers. But are you listening?

Marya Shakil: The BJP feels that they did not lose the recent elections because of the 'chowkidaar chor hai' jibes. Then why is the party's senior ministers like you and Jaitley engaging with Rahul Gandhi, who is not interested in facts?

Nirmala Sitharaman: But it is a debate in the House. It goes by certain rules. Once we have agreed for a debate, we have to do so. That's not engaging with X or Y. In the House, Speaker sitting there conducts it and we are participating in it.

Marya Shakil: What happens now ? What will the BJP do?

Nirmala Sitharaman: I also want to ask, if in the Parliament we have come out to give all the facts, people will have to make up their minds where the truth lies. Is Rahul Gandhi living in an era of post-truth? Facts are being given,. Beyond facts is something he wants to believe in. What's that? Would the media please question and get answers for them?

Marya Shakil: Your cabinet colleage Ravi Shankar Prasad said today that Rahul Gandhi is under pressure from Rafale's competitor Eurofighter and that's why some middlemen like Christian Michel and Haschke were pushing Eurofighter's case. Do you have proof to substantiate these allegations?

Nirmala Sitharaman: Being a minster, I can only say this much. I really can't understand how after so many stages we have crossed, and with the urgency with which the Air Force needed those aircrafts with squadron numbers of aircraft coming down rapidly, neighbourhood building up their force rapidly, etc., I can't understand why the deal was not concluded.

I said this in the house, Parliament is in session, I'm conscious. I'm repeating only what I've said in the House and not anything outside before or after the debate. Why did the then Raksha Mantri in February 2014 come out to say "Where is the money?" I did refer to this. When negotiations happen within the ministry, the short period I have been here, I understand. Even as the process is on, you're very clear as to what is the amount to be paid as advance the moment you signed the contract and the ministry makes provisions for it. After that, things like within six months how much, within eight months how much, date of first delivery, etc., are made in the ministry. WIthout that, you won't spend time negotiating. Once the agreement is signed, you know how much is to be released.

Marya Shakil: You said Congress stopped this deal because when it was in power, it did not get the money.

Nirmala Sitharaman: I get the feeling that there is something more to it. Otherwise why would the Raksha Mantri then say where's the money? From the ministry, if you're on the verge of getting an agreement done, you'd know what is the advance to be paid. You'd keep the provisions ready in your budgetary matters. For him to say at that stage, and even today, aren't we being reminded that the entire thing was tied up? Tied up in what sense? Without money, you went ahead to talk with these parties?

Marya Shakil: Talking about transparency, as the Raksha Mantri, shouldn't you put out all these facts?

Nirmala Sitharaman: They didn't even have a deal. This is the fact I am also highlighting. The way in which they speak, then finance minister, the then defence minister everybody says Air Force wanted 126 and why did you reduce to 36. Actual Air Force wanted something like 500- 600. Now I can ask why did they decide on 126 then. The total requirement during their time was 500-600. Why did you only agree for 126?

Marya Shakil: In that case, going by that logic, the link that is being bought in is of Christian Michel and that is the reason why Rahul Gandhi tried to derail it. Is the government really sure about it because there are certain reports which are suggesting so?

Nirmala Sitharaman: The government is not even talking about this. I read a media report today that the person being bought to India for Agusta Westland scam is also saying there was something to do with Eurofighter and rafale leads to a lot of questions which now Congress should answer. Are these the reasons why you didn't sign? Are these the reasons you didn't think you were ready with money to buy it? On one hand, the then Raksha Mantri gives permission to go on for negotiation and on the same paragraph he says but come back and let the finance ministry look into the methodology at that stage. What is that then? Are these the ways you are delaying and halting the purchases? After the technical committee gave a clearance, you appointed the committee again in 2011 to see everything is okay or not. And they cleared it for you.

Marya Shakil: What about the file notings?

Nirmala Sitharaman: On what?

Marya Shakil: Rahul Gandhi talked about it. He raised this question also.

Nirmala Sitharaman: He seems to have all the ministries' file, but he is creating tapes fraudulently attributing to many others. What is that? Is he sitting over the files? What are the file notings he is talking about? If he knows the file notings, I'll ask him. After all, it was during their time that file notings and other things didn't matter. Everybody cleared it. They said it is a perfect deal, go ahead and buy it.

Marya Shakil: So who do you think leaked the file notings ?

Nirmala Sitharaman: I'd like the Congress to answer. Why are you asking me? You should ask him. There are so many questions you should ask him. Why didn't they agree, despite the technical committee clearing it. They throw questions at us now, saying: "It was all over, why didn't you buy it?" Arrey, you could have bought it. Did they give the contract to HAL? Even Agusta Westland, why did they have to go there? Helicopters are made by HAL, they could have made it for them. No. And the kind of delays they have done.

Marya Shakil: If it is about middlemen, because Michel is already in ED's custody and Haschke as Mr Prasad was alleging, also...

Nirmala Sitharaman: Yes, the reports are in the media.

Marya Shakil: Then for the sake of fairness, do you think this should be investigated?

Nirmala Sitharaman: Very interesting, but would you want to ask Rahul Gandhi first if there is anything to do with their party on this? Let me voice my gripe for a minute, if you permit me, Marya. Any number of questions on Rafale, I'm willing to answer. But I'll also ask you, how is it that for every question Rahul Gandhi asks, at least for the period which pertains to their government, when the non-deal is what we should be talking about, one question is not being thrown at him? Why didn't they finalise it? They constantly keep asking me and the PM same "Why didn't you finalise, why didn't you give it to HAL? Why did you decide on Rafale? Will you all go back to him and ask: "Why didn't they tie up the agreement? Air Force was waiting with bated breath." You didn't serve the Air Force. You left them high and dry. Wouldn't you want to ask a party which was in power for 10 full years watching this depletion of squadrons. Why wouldn't you want to ask him even one question, Marya?

Marya Shakil: I certainly hope Rahul Gandhi gives me an interview and I can ask him. But this question, Rahul Gandhi certainly won't let go off. Today he tweeted, quoting a newspaper report: "HAL does not have enough cash to pay salaries and it is surprising Anil Ambani has Rafale." Then he linked it with salaries and how this would lead to poaching. How would you respond to this fresh allegation?

Nirmala Sitharaman: It's not fresh at all. In fact, you'll probably say "Why are you going back?" But I will go back. For all that they have done to HAL, the company today is sitting, wanting more and more orders just to keep them running. This is a rough comparison for 10 years. Each year, they gave something like Rs 10,000 crore to HAL. We have been here for only five years. For each year, we have given orders worth Rs 20,000 crore to them. You never attended to HAL and its problem from the point of view of 1) bringing better machinery, giving greater skills, order books. No concern whatsoever. The management of HAL is struggling to cope with a lot of things and we are trying to help them out. But you didn't do any of that. Today, you quote all these statistics as though they cropped up overnight. For a company of the size of HAL, problems don't crop up overnight. They continue over the years and they rise like that because today HAL is in spotlight and you're seeing this. That is why I asked one question. HAL in Bengaluru is very well for you all to go and see it. Symbolic of the way in which the Congress baselessly alleges. Symbolic is the fact that there is an HAL in Amethi.

Marya Shakil: Yes, there is one.

Nirmala Sitharaman: Have you ever been there? Really, because as a Member of Parliament, he should be concerned about the institutions, companies, particularly public sector undertakings in his constituency.  Therefore, when you say this whole thing is about politics, would you ask: "Is it about politics, or is it about genuinely wanting to do something?"

Marya Shakil: Someone would argue that one of the reasons why Rafale-HAL deal fell was because Dassault was informed that HAL will need 2.7 times more man hours. How does holding back Rs 20,000 crore help the defence PSU?

Nirmala Sitharaman: Which is the one you're referring to? The Air Force and the others who have not paid them? I wouldn't want to put it in black-and-white but there is a grey to it also. That is, it may not be a complete answer, but I will also highlight that there are many cases in which HAL probably, for justifiable reasons, delayed the delivery. I'm not just defending the Air Force, in this case they can also be the Army and Navy. In a year, each of these forces budget their expenditure. Just as they demand the Finance Ministry and get it. If the delivery was not made within the year in which you have budgeted the money for it, and next year or there is delay of two years, they wouldn't in advance know when that is going to come. So they would move to something else. As a result, payments do get delayed. Not justified at all, I agree. But I'm giving you the reasons why this could have happened. So when delayed delivery happens, the year in which the delivery is expected, for which the budget provision exists, if it comes within the year, they will pay. If it doesn't come, they couldn't anticipate that it'll come the next year or second year after that. So provisioning budget for the delayed payment cannot be done and then they just keep moving, and sometimes they get around paying it. This is huge, and I'm not justifying it. I've already called, and I'm probably saying it here, I've already called a meeting with the three forces and with HAL. The CMD is being requested to come here so that we sit and sort that out. It's not as if I didn't know about it earlier also. I've held meetings. But to say that someone is sitting over that money is, if you ask them, they have their reasons for it.

Marya Shakil: Last question. This is a political issue and you have ruled out a JPC. Is the govt open to an idea of Rahul Gandhi challenging the PM for a debate? In the run-up to the elections, there will be debates.

Nirmala Sitharaman: Why should I even comment on it? What have you done with the replies given till now by the former Raksha Mantri, by me? You wanted a debate in the House, I responded. What have you done with all that? No, you haven't done anything with it. Even today, following up on the reply, he is only doing a personal attack on me, which I don't mind at all. He is very welcome to do it. But it tells me how completely desperate and agitated he is, because his false campaign has been called out.

Marya Shakil: Always a pleasure to speak to you. Thank you so much.
First Published on Jan 7, 2019 09:30 pm
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