Chapter 6 : Delhi Days
When Modi triumphed over from the hapless UPA-II and Parrikar assumed charge of the ministry, the latter even went on record to say that as an alternative, he preferred the Russian-made Sukhoi Su-30MKI to the Rafale, even as both the French company and the Indian government failed to make headway during the negotiations.
Three years after the UPA-II announcement, Parrikar in a written reply to the Rajya Sabha said that the defence ministry had withdrawn the request for proposal (RFP) it had issued for the MMRCA procurement, in which, apart from Dassault Rafale, Russian MIG-35, Swedish JAS-39, American F-16 Falcon, Boeing’s F/A-18 and the Eurofighter Typhoon had also pitched for. This meant that the deal envisaged by the UPA-II regime to buy 126 medium range fighter jets was effectively dead.
The new deal for thirty-six MMRCA’s was eventually signed in an inter-governmental agreement between France and India, during Modi’s official visit to Paris in April 2015. In 2016, Dassault Aviation and the Anil Ambani–led Reliance Group announced the setting up of the Dassault Reliance Aerospace Limited as the Indian offset firm
that would manufacture the aircraft in India.
By the time the contentious Rafale airplane episode gathered steam and slowly emerged as Congress’ go-to issue to slam Narendra Modi, Parrikar had long put in his papers as the defence minister and returned to Goa as CM. He had already been diagnosed for advanced pancreatic cancer and was shuffling in and out of hospitals, when the fighter jet controversy’s sonic boom reverberated in Goa and for a while, all hell broke loose.
Goa’s health minister, Vishwajit Rane, has often been described as a young man in a hurry to Be the chief minister.
Son of Pratapsingh Rane, a veteran Congressman who served as chief minister for nearly fifteen years, Vishwajit knew all the moves that a politician could possibly make on Goa’s politically treacherous dance floor. Early in his career and although a Congressman, he wrangled a chairmanship of a plum government corporation, when the BJP was in power. He had won assembly elections from the Valpoi assembly constituency as an independent MLA, as a Congressman and as a BJP candidate, participated in both, government toppling and government formation manoeuvres, always angling for the top political post in the state.
Vishwajit’s persistent and hurried ambition perhaps led to the scandal that rocked Parliament On 2 January 2019.
On Parliament grounds that day, All India Congress Committee’s general secretary incharge of communication, Randeep Singh Surjewala, made an announcement that triggered a virtual meltdown in the Lok Sabha.
Surjewala told the assembled media that the Congress had in its possession an audio conversation between Goa’s Health Minister Viswajit Rane and an unnamed journalist, in which the former could be heard claiming that Parrikar, in a cabinet meeting held on 20 December 2018, had said that all documents related to the Rafale purchase were in his bedroom.
During the session, Congress president and Lok Sabha MP, Rahul Gandhi, tried to read out the transcript of the tape twice after attempting to play the audio conversation amid chaos and disruption by the treasury benches. Strangely, Gandhi did not agree to the demand made by Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley to authenticate the tape. Perhaps, he did not have confidence in the material he was banking his assault on. In retrospect, this reluctance to authenticate the tape appears to have done Gandhi’s cause more harm than good, as far as his pursuit of the Rafale scam is concerned.
In the audio conversation, Vishwajit calls up the journalist to excitedly brief him about what apparently went on in the controversial cabinet meeting at the chief minister’s private residence, and says that Parrikar had told his cabinet ministers that all Rafale-related files were with him in his bedroom. Amid shock expressed by the journalist, Vishwajit is also heard saying that Parrikar could be using the Rafale files to hold Prime Minister Narendra Modi to ransom and dissuade the PM from replacing him as chief minister, despite his failing health.
The impact of the din in Parliament reverberated in Goa too, with Parrikar rejecting the insinuations made in the audio recording, claiming no such conversation ever took place in the cabinet meeting and the mention of the Rafale files was never made. Vishwajit too claimed that the voice in the audio, which was purported as his own, was doctored. He went a step further and demanded that both BJP national president Amit Shah and Parrikar institute a probe by Central and state agencies respectively, to nab the person responsible for doctoring the audio and creating mischief. In the days that followed, no such enquiry was instituted either by the Central government or the Parrikar-led administration.
The contents of the audiotape, which held the Indian Parliament hostage for several days and made sensational revelations about the most talked-about defence-purchase controversy in perhaps the last two decades, were conveniently forgotten by the BJP-led coalition governments both in Goa and at the Centre.
So, according to versions cross-checked with several cabinet ministers, what really went down at the controversial cabinet meeting was precisely this. In the course of tackling items listed on the agenda note, Parrikar was asked by his cabinet colleagues about the nuances of the Rafale deal, which was occupying the national media space at the time. He was also asked as to why he was quiet on the issue, despite being involved in the negotiations. In response, Parrikar told his ministers, that since senior leaders from the party—Finance Minister Arun Jaitley was primarily putting forth the government’s view at that point of time and combating the allegations levelled by the Opposition—were commenting on the issue and as no one from the party High Command or the Central government had asked him to clarify, he did not feel the need to make a public comment. And then in his own bombastic style, Parrikar added: ‘All information about Rafale is here’.
According to the cabinet ministers spoken to, Parrikar may have implied that the information was with him, not in physical form, but cached in his mind, because he had dealt with the issue closely. Rane perhaps in his eagerness to ‘spin-feed’ a ‘suitable’ story to a favourite journalist, interpreted the comment to suggest the files in physical form were present in Parrikar’s bedroom itself. For an ailing former defence minister, these Chinese whispers triggered yet another distasteful controversy, which he had to counter from his deathbed. Despite the aggravation, Vishwajit held on to his ministry, but from what one hears from the BJP officials, he is not completely off the hook of suspicion yet.
A conventional holiday in Goa usually amounts to some time in the sun, some in the surf and some more dedicated to sozzle. But when Rahul Gandhi visited Goa in January 2019 to join his mother, Sonia Gandhi, on vacation, he had some other plans up his sleeve. A day after his photograph with a blonde dentist, a fellow diner at the popular Fisherman’s Wharf restaurant in south Goa went viral, Rahul dropped in for a surprise visit to the state legislative assembly complex to meet the ailing Parrikar.
Rahul’s sudden arrival through the assembly complex’s rear entrance sent mediapersons covering the assembly proceedings into a tizzy. After a brief five-minute courtesy call, Rahul went on to tell them that he had called on Parrikar, a former colleague in Parliament, to enquire about his health. MLAs across party lines, even deputy speaker in the state assembly and BJP legislator Michael Lobo, said that Rahul’s sincerity and humbleness had to be admired, because he took time off from a vacation to meet a former parliamentary colleague from an opposing political party.
Hours later on the same day, after leaving Goa, while interacting with Congress party workers in Kochi, Rahul dropped the bomb. Parrikar, according to Rahul, had said that as the defence minister he had nothing to do with the Rafale scam and the involvement of Anil Ambani’s firm in the deal. He however didn’t mention whether Parrikar had said this during the courtesy meeting earlier that day. The remark sparked outrage in the BJP ranks, with a shocked Parrikar denying having made such a statement and accusing Rahul of using a ‘visit to an ailing person to feed political opportunism’ in a letter to the Congress president, which was leaked to the media, even before Rahul Gandhi could get it.
Rahul Gandhi was to respond in yet another open letter clarifying that Parrikar’s comments on the Rafale deal and his statement in Kochi was not based on the information shared during the courtesy call, but based on information already in the public domain. Parrikar’s charge against Rahul, accusing him of taking advantage of his illness, appeared pretty much similar to the one made by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) against Parrikar.
AAP’s Valmiki Naik was one of the potential candidates for the state assembly elections to the Panaji seat, which Parrikar had vacated following his elevation to the Central cabinet. Naik was forced to stage a hurried press conference outside his own home after the defence minister dropped by to visit the AAP leader’s home ostensibly to meet his ailing father, Datta, a BJP sympathizer. The objective of Naik’s presser was to distance himself from Parrikar’s sudden visit to his house, in an electorally charged atmosphere. Parrikar had described the visit While Parrikar had described it as a courtesy call to an ailing supporter’s house, AAP National Joint Secretary Akshay Marathe said this after the controversy surrounding Rahul Gandhi’s meeting with Parrikar in 2019 snowballed.
‘It’s called karma, Parrikar. In 2017, AAP was a serious threat to BJP in then Def Min’s home turf Panjim, where @ValmikiNaik was attracting anti-BJP votes. Parrikar paid a “courtesy visit” to Valmiki’s ailing father to sow doubt into voters’ minds about an alleged AAP– BJP link,’ Marathe tweeted.2 These asides apart, in the days before his death, it was Parrikar’s note in a defence ministry File that proved to be one of the most discussed aspects of the Rafale fighter jet purchase conspiracy, apart from the Congress’ repeated charge against the younger Ambani sibling.
For long, the Congress had been trying to isolate and pin the onus of the purchase of the thirty-six multi-role fighter Rafale planes on Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It was Parrikar’s noting that was published by The Hindu3 while reporting the alleged scam part by part, which formed the meat of the controversy in the final run-up to
the 2019 general elections.
The byline articles by The Hindu editor N. Ram considered Parrikar’s note as the clincher as far as pinning down the PMO’s involvement in the deal was considered and to underline that the negotiation for the Rafale fighter jets deviated from the standard defence ministry protocol.
‘It appears that the PMO and the French president’s office are monitoring the progress of the issue, which was an outcome of the summit meeting. Para 5 appears to be an overreaction. Def Sec [Defence Secretary] may resolve issue/matter in consultation with Pr Sec to PM,’ Parrikar’s note read. Point five referred to a comment by the deputy defence secretary that parallel negotiations by the Prime Minister’s Office had weakened the negotiating position of the Ministry of Defence and the Indian negotiating team, while suggesting that PMO officials who were not part of the negotiating team should not be allowed to conduct parallel parleys with French officials.
In essence, the deputy defence secretary had expressed concern about the Indian negotiating team losing its edge in wake of parallel negotiations being worked out by the PMO with French officials; a case of too many cooks
spoiling the broth. In an added note, dated 24 November 2015, deputy defence secretary S.K. Sharma says, it is ‘desirable that such discussions be avoided by the PMO as it undermines our negotiating position seriously’.4 As far as the big picture is concerned, the Congress failed to politically capitalize on the controversy.
The Dassault Rafale MMRCA, which has been given the thumbs up by several defence experts as a quality aircraft suited to India’s defence needs, will in all likelihood defend the Indian skies in the years to come. Modi weathered the ‘Chowkidaar Chor Hai’ jibe to be re-elected as the prime minister. And as far as Parrikar goes, he is dead and his story about the deal may well have gone with him.
(‘Excerpted’ with permission from Penguin Random House India)