New Delhi: Defending the Rafale fighter jets deal, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Monday said Congress president Rahul Gandhi was not being briefed carefully by his party and offered to arrange a “tutor” for the Congress chief to “get his facts right”. She also wondered if Rahul Gandhi was living in a post-truth world.
In an exclusive interview to CNN-News18's Marya Shakil, Sitharaman questioned why the Congress-led UPA government had been unable to finalise deal for the fighter jets, saying one should pose the same question to Rahul Gandhi.
Lashing out at the Congress over chaotic proceedings in Parliament, Sitharaman said the government is ready to answer questions, but the opposition is not ready to listen.
"It is for the concerned minister to give the reply. You started the debate and when the concerned minister got up to reply, you say ‘call the prime minister’,” said the defence minister.
Sitharaman also took exception to Rahul Gandhi calling Prime Minister Modi a chor (thief) and reminded that the Congress leader is himself out on bail in the National Herald case.
Here are the edited excerpts from the interview:
Q: Ma'am, 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. He said that you lied in the Parliament that day. 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 it's rich with facts. I'm giving all the facts. Arun Jaitley is giving the facts. Unfortunately, Rahul Gandhi, the leader and president of Congress, doesn't want the facts. He 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 that he understands when the facts are given. Still if he has some more questions, he is welcome to ask. But he is asking the same questions for which the answers have been given. None of the fundamental facts that have been given are ever taken cognisance of and he harps on the same thing. If the Congress party is unable to tutor him, I don't mind arranging for a tutorial. But please, get yourself tutored. Get the fundamental facts. Haven’t I said not just once but 2-3 times, if he only sits with Shri AK Antony and gets the details, I'm sure he'd 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 on the floor of the House that these are in the pipeline. 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 these are stages you should understand. That's why I used this language that they are in the pipeline. But you don't listen and say: "Oh she claimed that this much was given." Excuse me, debates will have to be a bit more...with both sides doing their homework, taking facts on board, and questioning facts. "No, facts don’t matter to me, I will still keep throwing allegations."
Q: You said Rahul is probably scared. What makes you think that he is scared?
Nirmala Sitharaman: Because they started a campaign on falsehoods completely. It starts with the premise that the PM is a chor (thief). Now what is that? The process works, a decision is being pending, you reached a deadlock, the urgency with which the Air Force wants the aircraft, then the process works, all this will have to be understood by us before you conclude saying so-and-so is a thief. This is wrong. You don't besmirch people who are holding positions. Even in cases where corruption is proved, it will be indecent and unacceptable to call anybody that. Here is a man out on bail, calling others chor? Prove yourself first. Clear the record about yourself. 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.
Q: Rahul says he wants a 15-minute debate with the PM.
Nirmala Sitharaman: Finance Minister is the leader of the House in Rajya Sabha. He is the former Raksha Mantri, he's held that position twice before Parrikar took over and before I came in, 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.
Q: Do you think the PM will speak?
Nirmala Sitharaman: Are we going to just go with the narrative the Congress gives, or will the media please — like you requested me and sat down to talk to you — make the Congress president sit and ask him the questions? Saying, "Hang on, the former RM, current RM 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 "We want the PM to answer." Well, I'm the concerned minister. You asked for a debate in the House and the rules say: "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." You started the debate. You wanted it. 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 — in our regions, we used to call them as 'paper rockets' — were being thrown at us. Arun Jaitley is talking, papers are being passed and arrows were being thrown at us. Photographs were taken with phones with poses. You asked for a debate. You are saying critical allegations against the government. We are ready to give answers. You want to listen, but are you listening?
Q: The BJP feels that they did not lose the recent elections because of the 'chowkidaar chor hai' jibes, then why are 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, the speaker sitting there conducts. We are participating in it.
Q: What will the BJP do now?
Nirmala Sitharaman: I also want to ask, if in the Parliament we have come out to give all the facts, people of the country watch the television, I suppose, and of course, people will have to make up their minds where the truth lies. With all the enthusiasm with which something called "post-truth" all around in the world, saying "Now it's the era of post-truth." 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?
Q: Your cabinet colleague Ravi Shankar Prasad said that Rahul Gandhi is under pressure from Rafale's competitor Eurofighter, and that's why some middlemen like Christian Michel and Haschke were pushing the case for Eurofighter. Do you have proof to substantiate these allegations?
Nirmala Sitharaman: Being a minister, 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 aircraft, with squadron numbers of aircraft coming down rapidly, with neighbourhood building up their force rapidly, I can't understand why the deal was not concluded. I still don't understand. 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.
Q: You said the Congress party 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. From the ministry, if you're on the verge of getting an agreement done, you'd know the advance to be paid. You'd keep the provisions ready in your budgetary matters that you're going for a big deal, you need advance to be paid. 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 on talking with these parties?
Q: 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 highlighting. The way in which they speak then finance minister, the then defence minister everybody says Air Force wanted 126 aircraft and why did you reduce it to 36. Actually the Air Force wanted something like 500-600 aircraft. I can ask why did they decide on 126.
Q: What about the file notings?
Nirmala Sitharaman: On what?
Q: 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 fradulently attributing to many others. What is that? Is he sitting over the files? If he knows the file notings, I'll ask him. It'll be interesting for us to know. Let them answer the question. After all it was during their times that file notings and other things didn't matter. Everybody cleared it. They said it is a perfect deal, go ahead and buy it.
Q: So who do you think leaked the file notings then?
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, in spite of the technical committee clearing it up, every negotiation was over, they themselves say it, isn’t it? They throw it at us now, saying "It was all over, why didn't you buy it?" All the crocodile tears again. Even AgustaWestland, why did they have to go there? Helicopters are made by the HAL, they could have made it for them. No.
Q: If it's 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.
Q: Then for the sake of fairness, do you think this should be investigated? So that the real truth comes out?
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. I am willing to answer any number of questions on Rafale. 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 asked back to him? Why didn't they finalise it, why did they tie it up? 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 say "Why didn't they tie up the agreement? Air Force was waiting with bated breath." You didn't serve the Air Force. 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?
Q: I certainly hope Rahul Gandhi gives me an interview and I can ask him. Quoting a newspaper report, Rahul tweeted "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. 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. Which is what we are attending to. I've said this before. Each year, they gave something like Rs 10,000 crore to the HAL. We have been here only 5 years. For each year, we have given orders worth Rs 20,000 crore to them. You never attended to the HAL and its problem from the point of view of a) 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 the focus and you're seeing this. That is why I asked one question. The HAL in Bengaluru is very well for you all to go and see it. Symbolic is the fact that there is an HAL in Amethi.
Q: 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, which are in your 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?"
Q: 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, that 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. 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 which you have budgeted the money for it, and next year or delay of 2 years, they wouldn't in advance know when that is going to come. 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. 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.
Q: You have ruled out a JPC. Is the government open to the idea of PM debating Rahul Gandhi? 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. It is more like, "I will do a spit-and-run exercise, now I want the PM to come and stand there." 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.