PMO can ask for details, seek clarifications, suggest modifications to most matters since it leads the government.
The Rafale saga continues to make headlines, even if based on half-truths or at best incomplete facts. For nearly six months, the basis of allegations of wrongdoing in the Rs 59,000 crore deal to buy 36 Rafale fighter jets was the charge of crony capitalism against the government and particularly Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Last week, critics of the deal, particularly Congress president Rahul Gandhi shifted the goal post to point out alleged “interference” by the Prime Minister’s office (PMO) in the negotiation process. The new charge was based on a report in a newspaper which quoted internal correspondence in the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to imply that the PMO had a direct interest in the deal. Seizing the opportunity, Rahul Gandhi immediately stepped up the attack on the Prime Minister.
Within hours however, full facts, disclosed by the government in Parliament and by an official directly involved in the negotiations that clinched the deal, demolished the campaign. So here’s what we know from what happened in 12 hours on Friday. First the newspaper said the then Defence Secretary, G. Mohan Kumar had objected to “parallel negotiations” carried out by the PMO with the French government, citing a noting on a file initiated by junior officer. What the Chennai-based paper cleverly refrained from saying (either deliberately or through oversight) is that the then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar had closed the matter by instructing the Defence Secretary not to overreact and also by discussing the matter with the PMO officials. If this was not enough to take the wind out of the sails of the newspaper report, Air Marshal S.B.P. Sinha (Retd), the man who led the Indian Negotiating Team (INT) in 2015, came out all guns blazing to shoot down all allegations. He essentially made three points: One, no one from the MoD, least of all the Defence Secretary, brought to the notice of the INT any apprehension about “interference from the PMO”. Two, it was he who took up the matter of “sovereign guarantee” versus “letter of comfort” debate between the Indian and French sides and sought clarification from the Indian PMO if it was in touch with the French PMO on the subject. And three, what was the locus standi or motive of the deputy secretary to initiate a note about PMO’s role when he was not in the chain of decision making or part of the INT?
Essentially, Air Marshal Sinha, who retired five weeks ago as Commander-in-Chief Central Air Command of the Indian Air Force (IAF), demolished the argument that the government had something to hide in the Rafale deal or the way negotiations were conducted.
Apart from the points made by Air Marshal Sinha, two fundamental principles need to be reiterated here. No matter how much some people dislike it, the fact is every PMO since India’s Independence has had the overarching authority to guideline ministries, object to their decisions and overrule them where necessary. In this case, the PMO was acting as a facilitator to remove the roadblocks in negotiations which the INT with its limited mandate could not have achieved. In any case, the PMO can ask for details, seek clarifications, suggest modifications to most matters since it leads the government. To suggest mala fide in routine administrative matters is to politicise governance. In its attempt to find equivalence to Bofors bribery scandal in the Rafale contract, the Congress party is doing just that and in the process harming national security, since by hurling, what is now proving to be wild and baseless allegations, it is affecting vital defence preparedness. As a party that has ruled India the longest since 1947, the Congress party must introspect on this aspect.
Nitin A. Gokhale is national security analyst, media trainer, author, and founder of BharatShakti.in