Congress president Rahul Gandhi led from the front as the high voltage Lok Sabha debate on the Rafale fighter jet deal on Wednesday saw the Opposition putting up a united face backed by BJP ally Shiv Sena and Biju Janata Dal (BJD), which for the first time joined the chorus for JPC probe into the deal.
Launching his pincer attack on Prime Minister Narendra Modi amidst acrimonious scene which saw paper planes flying around in the House, Rahul said Modi does not have “guts” to come to Parliament to confront questions and “hides” in his room.
In a heightened drama, Rahul sought Speaker Sumitra Mahajan’s permission to play an audio tape, in which a Goa Minister Vishwajit Rane purportedly claims that State Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar, a former Defence Minister, has all the files and papers of the Rafale deal in his possession.
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said the tape is “false and fabricated”, asking the Congress president if he can authenticate it. He may have to face privilege motion and even expulsion in case it turns out to be fabricated, the BJP leader added. Amid an uproar which caused a brief adjournment of the House proceedings, the Congress leader said he would not play it, prompting Jaitley to say Rahul was “scared” as he knew it was false.
“This man lies and lies repeatedly,” Jaitley said. The Speaker also disallowed Rahul’s request to play the clip.
Rane has already termed the tape “fabricated”, Jaitley said. In his speech, Rahul also referred to Modi’s comments in an interview that no personal allegation was levelled against him in the matter and said this is not true as the “entire nation” is asking him a direct question on the contract for purchase of fighter aircraft.
“He (Modi) spoke for 90 minutes in a staged interview but still did not answer questions on the Rafale issue,” he said, reiterating his party’s demand for a JPC probe into the matter.
“We demand a JPC probe into the matter. There is no reason for BJP leaders to feel afraid. The country will get to know that Modi put Rs 30,000 crore in the pockets of ‘double A’. The contract was snatched from HAL (a Government-run unit),” he said, alleging corruption in the contract.
‘Double A’ was an apparent reference to Anil Ambani, whom Rahul repeatedly referred to in his speech before the Speaker asked him not to name him as he is not a member of the House.
The Congress leader described Ambani as a “dear friend” of Modi and a “failed businessman”. His defence firm was registered only 10 days before it got the off-set contract from Rafale, a French firm, Rahul alleged. Rahul kept his focus and referred to pricing and offset contracts and asked why the Rafale deal which was negotiated for Rs 530 crore per plane during the UPA regime was now set to cost Rs 1,600 crore per plane.
“Is it not true that Defence Ministry officials objected to the new price of Rs 1,600 crore, Rahul said, accusing Modi of favouring his “dear friend” and “failed businessman” Anil Ambani.
He also repeated the old charges that the Prime Minister had himself authored the deal to snatch the offset contracts from HAL and give it to his “friend” Anil Ambani.
Ambani has repeatedly denied allegations against him. Rahul also claimed that Defence Ministry officials had objected to the renegotiated deal on the purchase of Rafale aircraft. He also accused AIADMK members, who were protesting in the Well of the House over the Cauvery issue, of trying to protect Modi.
Taking a swipe at Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, who was present in the House, Congress leader said she was “hiding” behind the AIADMK members while Modi “hides” in his room.
For the first time since the debate on the alleged corruption in Rafale deal started, seven parties which together represent over 28 per cent of the Lok Sabha’s strength demanded a probe into the multi billion dollar defence deal on Wednesday.
Together the parties whose members demanded a probe into the deal in the Lower House on Wednesday have 147 MPs in a 545-member Lok Sabha. These parties are - Congress (45 MPs), Trinamool Congress (34), Biju Janata Dal (19), BJP ally Shiv Sena (18), Telegu Desam Party (15), CPI(M) (9), and NCP (7).
Arvind Sawant (Shiv Sena) said the Government speaks of transparency, then why it is rejecting the demand for a JPC probe.
“We are transparent. Why we should be scared. Our Government is good, it is not corrupt, then why should we be scared? Let there be a JPC probe and the truth come out,” he said.
Sena, a disgruntled partner of the BJP badmouthing its senior ally, has been striking differing notes of several political issues including that on the Rafale controversy.
Making a reference to the Bofors deal, which had happened during the period of Rajiv Gandhi Government, Sawant said Bofors was a good gun but the deal was bad. “People say Rafale is good (aircraft) but deal is bad,” Sawant said.
He said the Supreme Court in its judgment never said there should not be a JPC probe.
The BJD, for the first time, broke its silence on the issue and joined the Congress in raising doubts about the deal.
Without explicitly asking for a JPC investigation, the BJD sought a closer look at the deal to know what went behind the deal.
BJD MP Kailash Narayan Singh Deo speaking on the issue of Rafale in the Lok Sabha said, “Questions of probity and questions of procedure do exist. Questions arise on pricing. It is well known that Qatar has bought the same planes at much cheaper price.”
He added that with these doubts lingering about the deal, the Parliamentarians could not be expected to be “mute spectators”.
The biggest loss to the nation, Deo said, was the leaving out by the NDA of the transfer of technology clause that was put in the earlier deal that was finalised by the UPA.
“Under the UPA, technology was to be transferred. The Government should come with a white paper on why technology transfer was not done.”
Without explicitly calling for a JPC inquiry, Deo hinted at it when he said, “There needs to be a closer look at the deal. People of India should know what went behind (the decision).”
TMC’s Sougata Roy demanded the JPC into the matter and attacked the BJP saying, “Jaitley has lost his touch. We are not bothered about today. We don’t want to hear what happened in the past (in context of Jaitley mentioning Mr Q and Bofors deal).”
He said that “Modi was hiding behind Arun Jaitley” and was behaving like “Meghnad who used to fight from behind the clouds.” He also alluded to the Parrikar-Rafale tape.
Roy pointed out that Jaitley had misquoted the dialogue from Bond movie saying the actual dialogue is: “If it happens for the first time then it is happenstance, if it happens twice it is coincidence and if it is thrice then it is enemy action”.
“Jaitley ji your memory is failing you. If it happens thrice then it is enemy action and not conspiracy,” Roy said.
The TMC MP also nitpicked on Jaitley’s pronunciation of the name of former President Francois Hollande.
He also said that the NDA Government had to borrow a member from the Rajya Sabha, who is not even a Defence Minister, to speak on Rafale deal. Jaitley is a Rajya Sabha member.
Mohammad Salim of the CPI(M) said that while others were interested in self-reliance in defence of the country, the Government was interested in “self and reliance”. He described the deal, “operation cover-up”.
Jayadev Galla from the TDP, also member of standing committee on defence, criticised the perceived opacity maintained by the Government on the deal and demanded a JPC on the Rafale deal.