NEW DELHI: The political dogfight over purchase of Rafale fighter jets erupted again with Congress seeking to use objections raised by defence ministry officials to repeat its charge that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had personally pushed the deal.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi took up a newspaper report about the then defence secretary G Mohan Kumar’s reservations in a note of November 2015 about the PMO conducting “parallel discussions” with France as it could weaken India’s negotiating position, to say that his “chowkidar chor hai” battle cry had been validated.

At a hurriedly called “special” press conference, Rahul claimed it had now become “crystal clear” that the “watchman” was actually a thief, an accusation aimed at Modi. Later, party spokesman Manish Tiwari struck an equally belligerent note, declaring that the Modi-led PMO acted as a “middleman”.

The opposition party even expressed the hope that the Supreme Court would withdraw its clean chit to the deal in the light of the revelations. BJP and the government responded vehemently and pointed out that the news report cited by Rahul was economical with facts, and omitted the important point, mentioned in the MoD note, about the then defence minister Manohar Parrikar overruling the views of ministry officials as “overreaction”. Parikar had said in the note that the French President’s office and the PMO were monitoring progress of the issue which was the outcome of the summit meeting (between PM Modi and then French President Francoise Hollande).

HRD minister Prakash Javadekar said, “Rahul Gandhi’s lie-manufacturing factory has served us yet another lie. He and Congress are working to get the Rafale deal scrapped. They are playing into the hands of foreign forces and companies with vested interests.”

Defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman was equally dismissive and said Congress was “flogging a dead horse”. Rejecting the charge that Modi shoved the Rafale deal down the defence ministry’s gullet, she said, “Periodical enquiries by the PMO cannot be misconstrued as interference.”

The government got a shot in the arm when former defence secretary Kumar, who signed the note and is now retired, asserted that pricing negotiations were handled by the defence ministry alone with no PMO interference. “It is an exaggerated, manufactured story based on half-truths,” Kumar told TOI in Kochi, pointing out that his notings referred to sovereign guarantee and general terms and conditions.

Then IAF deputy chief Air Marshal S B P Sinha, who headed the negotiations with the French, said, “There was never any interference from anybody in the price negotiations, including the PMO.” He said the note was initiated by a defence ministry official who was not part of the negotiating team.

At Congress’s press briefing, party chief Rahul called the note a “smoking gun”. “It is absolutely clear that the PM has stolen Rs 30,000 crore of your (armed services) money, bypassed a process and given it to his friend Anil Ambani,” he said, seeking to specifically address “members and families of armed forces”.

When asked about the probe into property purchases by his brother-in-law Robert Vadra, Rahul said, “Whatever inquiry you want to do, you do it. You implement the law. Robert Vadra, P Chidambaram, you implement the law on everyone. No problem. But you also give answers on the Rafale matter.”

The party did not back off even when former defence secretary Kumar clarified that the note was on “sovereign guarantee” and not pricing. “There should be a JPC inquiry,” Tiwari said, adding, “Obfuscation to continue serving the political master will not help. He must come clean on all the facts in this murky transaction.”

While rebutting the allegation, BJP spokesperson Anil Baluni focused on the omission of Parrikar’s comment to allege that those behind it were acting in concert with Congress to sabotage the Rafale deal and discredit the Modi government.

He said the newspaper printed only part of the note while claiming that it was a facsimile, confirming that there was indeed a conspiracy. “The question is was the vital part of the note — the minister’s comments — deliberately cropped off just to fabricate a story and malign the NDA government and PM Modi?” he asked.

Baluni said it was time that those who fabricated a report based on a doctored document as well as Congress, which rushed to attack the government, disclosed their real intent. “It is the same party under which arms dealers have flourished and kickbacks routinely received in defence deals,” he said.

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