Cong accuses Sitharaman of 'lying' about fighter jets

Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman during an interaction with journalists.(PTI Photo)

The Congress on Thursday accused Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman of "lying" about the number of fighter aircraft required by the Indian Air Force and termed as "preposterous" her claim that the IAF does not have parking and maintenance facility to fly 126 fighter jets.

Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said Prime Minister Narendra Modi's decision to "arbitrarily" reduce the requirement of 126 fighter aircraft to 36 is "unexplainable". Surjewala reiterated his party's demand for a joint parliamentary committee report in the Rafale deal.

"Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman is caught lying again on the number of fighter aircraft required by Indian Air Force...PM Modi's decision to arbitrarily reduce the requirement of 126 fighter aircraft to 36 is unexplainable," he told reporters.

In a newspaper report Thursday, Sitharaman was quoted as saying the government decided to purchase only 36 Rafale fighter jet from France instead of the 126 being negotiated by the UPA government as infrastructure and other technical requirements of the Indian Air Force do not allow for greater procurement.

"The claim of the defence minister that IAF does not have parking and maintenance facility to fly 126 fighter jets is preposterous and goes against the grain of national security requirements," Surjewala said.

He said the defence minister's argument is "obnoxious" and asked if the government and the Air Force cannot create parking space/maintenance facility in 6-8 years period, during which the aircraft will be delivered.

"Can creation of parking space/maintenance facility be a ground for compromising air superiority and national security?" he asked.

Alleging a scam in the Rafale deal, the Congress leader asked how can the defence minister shed her responsibility by saying that it is a decision taken by 'commercial enterprise' in selecting a private player for offset contracts worth Rs 30,000 crore when it is a 'government-to-government contract'.

"Does she forget her own claim that it is a 'government-to-government contract’ backed by 'Inter Governmental Agreement' (IGA) and the amount of Rs 61,000 crore is being paid by Government of India to Dassault? Does it not prove malice and mala fides of the Modi Government?

"Let the prime minister and defence minister own accountability and submit to a JPC probe instead of lying to the nation about the deal," he said.

Surjewala alleged, "Lie, belie and fly in face of stark truth is the chameleon-like character of Modi Government."

He asked whether the defence minister knows there is a sanctioned strength of 42 air squadrons for the IAF.

Noting that the current number of air squadrons is 33, he said they are likely to fall to 31 by 2021. And considering that Rafale aircraft will not be delivered till 2022, there will be available existing space for seven more squadrons that means 126 aircraft, he said.

The Congress leader alleged the defence minister is also guilty of not disclosing the fact that the mandatory 'fast track procedure' for 'emergency purchase' was not followed by PM Modi at the time of the announcement of the purchase of 36 Rafale aircraft on April 10, 2015.

"She has also failed to point out that no such 'emergency purchase' was approved either by the then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar or Cabinet Committee on Security. How does she now explain the fact that despite the 'emergency purchase' in April 2015, aircraft will not be delivered by the year 2022 and that too without 'India Specific Enhancements?" he asked.

Surjewala said the defence minister was also "lying" on the non-disclosure of prices of Rafale aircraft, which she agreed to publicly disclose in a press conference on November 17, 2017, at the Raksha Bhawan.

He also claimed the Congress-UPA tender envisaged 'full weaponry and transfer of technology’ and said it was established by the joint statement of April 10, 2015, by French President Francois Hollande and Prime Minister Modi, which stated that the aircraft and associated systems and weapons would be delivered "on the same configuration as has been tested and approved by Indian Air Force".

"Why has the Modi Government then made an extra payment of Rs 41,000 crore from public exchequer i.e from Rs 526 Cr per aircraft to Rs 1670 Cr per aircraft if the India specific enhancements are the same as decided by the IAF (which include weaponry/avionics/ radar enhancements etc)?" he asked. 

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Cong accuses Sitharaman of 'lying' about fighter jets

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