PARIS: The French government said on Sunday that it feared damage to its relations with India after former president Francois Hollande stirred controversy about a major defence deal to sell fighter jets to New Delhi.
Hollande, who left office in May last year, had said last week during a trip to India that French jet manufacturer Dassault Aviation had been given no choice about its local partner in a 2016 deal with the Indian administration.
The government of PM Narendra Modi agreed to buy 36 Rafale jets from Dassault, which announced afterwards it was partnering for the project with billionaire Anil Ambani rather than the public defence conglomerate HAL.
Hollande's announcement that Dassault "did not have a say in it" added fuel to claims from India's Opposition that the Modi government had intervened to help Ambani, who is a supporter of PM Modi and hails from the same state as him.
"I find these remarks made overseas, which concern important international relations between France and India, do not help anyone and above all do not help France," Junior Foreign Minister Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne said on Sunday about Hollande.
"Because one is no longer in office, causing damage to a strategic partnership between India and France by making remarks that clearly cause controversy in India is really not appropriate," he said in an interview on Radio J.
Hollande made the comments to defend himself from accusations of a conflict of interest because Ambani's Reliance conglomerate had partially financed a film produced by his girlfriend, Julie Gayet, in 2016.
The choice of Reliance for a highly strategic contract to upgrade India's ageing fleet of fighter jets had caused a surprise at the time because the group had no previous experience in the aeronautics industry.
Hollande's comments were front-page news in leading newspapers on Saturday and it was also the top trending topic on Twitter.
Rahul Gandhi, head of the main opposition Congress party, which is seeking to oust the Modi government and his ruling party BJP in elections next year, went on the offensive.
"An ex-president of France is calling him (the prime minister of India) a thief. It's a question of the dignity of the office of the prime minister," he told a news conference in New Delhi.
In a no mood to spare the BJP regime at the Centre, Rahul Gandhi on Sunday hit back at PM Modi and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley on the Rafale jet deal, saying it's time the two stop lying on the issue and call for a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) probe into the controversial defence deal.
The Congress chief took to Twitter and asked the Finance Minister and the Prime Minister to "stop lying" on the issue and call for a JPC probe for an "uncorrupted truth" to come out.
The Gandhi scion also accused FM Jaitley of having the ability to spin "2 truths or lies" with "fake self-righteousness" and "indignation to defend the indefensible".
"Mr Jetlie's speciality is his ability to spin '2 truths', or lies, with fake self-righteousness and indignation to defend the indefensible. It's high time he, the RM and our PM stop lying and call a JPC to establish the full, uncorrupted truth about the Rafale Scam (sic)," Rahul Gandhi said in his tweet.
Along with his tweet, the Congress chief also tagged a media report highlighting how former French president Francois Hollande's charges have hit the Narendra Modi government on the Rafale issue.
Joining the Government-Opposition war over the Rafale fighter jet deal, Samajwadi Party (SP) chief Akhilesh Yadav too demanded on Sunday a JPC probe into the controversial defence deal between India and France.
Speaking to news agency ANI, the SP said that without a JPC the truth will not come out as the issue has now become global.
''We demand a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) probe on Rafale deal. Without a JPC, the truth will not come out, the issue has now become global,'' Akhilesh said.
Later, while ruling out scrapping of the deal, FM Jaitley defended the Prime Minister on the Rafale issue, saying the French government and Dassault Aviation have categorically denied the correctness of the former president's first statement.
He said the French government has stated that the decision with regard to the offset contracts of Dassault Aviation are taken by the company and not the government.
Jaitley, in a television interview, said there appears to be some 'jugalbandi' (connection) between the statements of Hollande and Congress President Rahul Gandhi.
"I am surprised? On August 30, he (Gandhi) tweeted that bombs are going to explode in France (over Rafale deal). How he came to know about that?,'' Jaitley asked.
"Though I do not have any proof of this jugalbandi, this creates suspicion in mind? There is definitely something ... A statement comes (from Hollande), then it is contradicted. But he (Gandhi) predicted this to happen 20 days in advance," he said.
Jaitley added that there is no question of scrapping the Rafale jet fighter deal as it is meant to meet the needs of the country's defence forces.