New Delhi: Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman sought to blunt Congress’ vociferous attack on the Rafale fighter jets deal, saying the previous UPA government took India’s security lightly despite growing challenges from China and Pakistan.
Speaking in the Lok Sabha, Sitharaman said Congress believed in doing “defence dealings” while the Narendra Modi government was “dealing in defence” to maintain India’s security.
“Our neighbourhood is very volatile. It is, therefore, important that we do anything to keep peace. Timely procurement of getting arms and ammunitions is a must. China added 4,800 aircraft. It’s the fourth generation aircraft being added by China. Pakistan increased its aircraft numbers by more than double in the last 10 years. In 2002, India had 42 squadrons, and came further down,” Sitharaman said while replying to Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge’s speech earlier in the day.
The defence minister said that Congress has become desperate as it knows that the Modi government has functioned without any corruption in the last five years. “Their strategy is spit and run. Defence ministry has run without dalals in last 5 years. Bofors was a scam, Rafale is not. Bofors sank Congress, Rafale will bring Modi back to power,” she said.
In a remark that riled up the Congress MPs, including Rahul Gandhi, Sitharaman alleged that the Congress chief lied about discussing the Rafale issue in a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron on March 9.
Taking on the Congress, the minister said, "You stopped the deal, forgetting Air Force was suffering. You didn't conclude the deal, because it didn't suit you. The deal didn't get you money."
"They did not intend to buy the aircraft till something else was done. There is something different between defence deal and deal in defence," she said, asserting that Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government gave priority to national security.
"You are misleading the country by saying the NDA government reduced 126 Rafale jets to 36. Congress was supposed to buy 18 in fly-away condition, the NDA raised that to 36," she said.
The delivery of first Rafale will happen in 2019, while the last aircraft of 36 jets will be delivered in 2022, the minister said. She said the IAF always advises government to buy two squadrons, which is 36 aircraft instead of 18, in case of emergency purchases, the minister said.
Wrapping up the rancorous debate in Lok Sabha, Sitharaman, in her over two-hour speech, also accused the Congress of stalling the contract during its rule because it "didn't get the money".
"The Congress is spreading falsehood on Rafale," she said and referred to the Supreme Court's ruling last month giving a clean chit to the government on the decision-making process of the deal. "I have given a point-by-point rebuttal to all your charges," she said.
After Sitharaman's address, Gandhi said she gave a long speech but did not answer any of his questions on the deal and "ran away". He called her speech a "drama". Gandhi also said if the Congress comes to power in 2019, a criminal investigation will be launched into the deal and those found guilty will be punished.
The Congress has accused the Centre of lying before the Supreme Court by citing a "non-existent" CAG report on Rafale deal and demanded that Prime Minister Narendra Modi reply to the debate in Lok Sabha on the issue.
Speaking during the short-duration discussion on Rafale, Kharge had accused Modi of giving offset contract to his "favourite man" and reiterated the demand for a probe by a Joint Parliamentary Committee.
"The Rafale deal is a Rs 1.30 lakh crore scam. Modi takes 'AA' along in his flight.... There should be a JPC probe since it is a very big scam. It has to be probed in the court of Parliament," Kharge had said.
When Congress president Rahul Gandhi during his speech in the House on Wednesday took the name of industrialist Anil Ambani, Speaker Sumitra Mahajan told him that he cannot use his name as per Parliament rules. Gandhi then referred to Ambani as 'AA'.
“We want the Prime Minister to come and sit in the House and reply to the debate. Till PM sits in the House, the Rafale issue will not be solved... He is definitely not involving himself in the Rafale discussion," Kharge said.