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Nirmala Sitharaman dismisses Rahul’s Rafale charge, says Opposition flogging ‘dead horse’

The Rafale deal issue once again rocked the Lok Sabha on Friday with a combative defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman countering a renewed offensive by the Opposition by terming as “incomplete” and “distorted” a newspaper report about “parallel negotiations” by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) in the Rafale fighter deal. The minister questioned whether “doubts” were being deliberately created in public minds because of some “corporate warfare”.

On Friday, a news report claimed that the then defence secretary G. Mohan Kumar made a noting about “parallel negotiations” by the PMO on an official file on Nov. 24, 2015, saying, “RM may pl. see. It is desirable that such discussions be avoided by the PMO as it undermines our negotiating position seriously.”

Claiming that the media report and Opposition’s allegations amounted to “flogging a dead horse”, Ms Sitharaman accused the Opposition of playing into the hands of multinational companies and vested interests to stop the deal.

“They are flogging a dead horse. Periodical enquiries by the PMO cannot be construed as interference,” she said during the Zero Hour.

“Please see the then defence minister statements… See how this publication conveniently chooses not to quote the then defence minister. I am sorry to say, but this is selective journalism… to present a story in a manner, just to get reactions…. We condemn such irresponsible and slanderous journalism,” she said.

The Opposition parties, however, stepped on the gas with the CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury claiming that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had consistently undermined the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the defence ministry to benefit his “cronies” in the Rafale deal. Other leaders, including Saugata Roy of the Trinamul Congress (TMC), Omar Abdullah of the National Conference and former defence minister A.K. Antony of the Congress, joined ranks to attack the Prime Minister.

Opposition pointed to the media report which claimed that the defence ministry had protested to the PMO over the mechanism adopted for the Rafale deal.

Ms Sitharaman said the then defence minister Manohar Parrikar had replied to the letter asking the official to remain “calm” as everything was “alright”.

Ms Sitharaman said, “As for the PMO following up with the defence ministry is concerned, does the PM’s Office asking for regular updates from a ministry to ensure timely work called interference? Interference is what Sonia Gandhi did with not just all the ministries, but the PMO too. That is what is called interference.”

Immediately after the House convened at noon, members from the Congress, the TMCs and the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) jumped into the well shouting slogans and showing placards referring to the media report.

Opposition members were heard shouting slogans demanding resignation of Mr Modi on the issue. Opposition parties also demanded constitution of a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) to probe the Rafale deal.

Saugata Roy of the TMC alleged that “notorious” National Security Advisor Ajit Doval was conducting parallel negotiations in Paris, undermining the bargaining power of the government.

National Conference leader Mr Abdullah said that a purported MoD note on Rafale indicated that Mr Parrikar had no knowledge of the progress in negotiations for the fighter jet deal.

Former defence minister A.K. Antony claimed it was “shocking” that the PMO was conducting parallel negotiations on the Rafale deal and alleged it had “special interests to protect”.

“Never in the history of Government of India it has happened like that. What is the special interest of the PMO? Why did the PMO take such a special interest in this case? They have special interests to protect. They want to favour somebody,” he alleged.

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