NEW DELHI: Union Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, who has been accused by the Congress-led Opposition of lying and suppressing facts related to the Rafale fighter jet deal, on Thursday denied any wrongdoing on the part of the Narendra Modi government.
The Defence Minister, while categorically rejecting the Congress party's allegations, said that the Rafale jet deal was sealed under a legal framework.
''The inter-governmental agreement to purchase 36 Rafale fighter jets from France was fully legal, as per the law and executed under a proper legal framework. The deal was cleared by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS).''
The Defence Minister said this while speaking to Aaj Tak news channel during which she sought to clear doubts and apprehensions over the Rafale jet deal.
Referring to Congress party's allegation of the Modi government favouring industrialist Anil Ambani's Reliance Defence over HAL- the Indian aero space major – Sitharaman said, ''You ask anyone, under the inter-governmental agreement, the name of one specific company can't be taken. And, if any firm, in the case of Rafale, wants to commercially collaborate with one or many other firms than all that is finalised under the offset rules.''
To a question about former French President Francois Hollande's explosive claims that the selection of the Indian company (Reliance Defence) in the Rafale deal was done at the behest of the Indian Government, which eventually led HAL kicked out of the deal, Sitharaman said, 'You should ask this question to the Congress party since it was during the UPA government that 95% of the deal with HAL as the Indian partner of France's Dassault Aviation was reportedly finalised. I want to ask Congress why the deal could not be finally sealed when 95% of it was already cleared?''
The clarification from the Defence Minister came hours after French President Emmanuel Macron confirmed that the defence deal for the purchase of French-manufactured 36 Rafale fighter jets was a government-to-government deal.
In a big boost to the Narendra Modi-led NDA government, the French President had on Wednesday confirmed that the Rafale fighter jet deal between India and France was a government-to-government deal.
Extending support to PM Modi, who is at the centre of Opposition attack over the controversial defence deal, Macron also said that the Indian PM is right in claiming so.
However, he refused to say more on the defence deal.
''PM Modi is right. That's a Govt-to-Govt discussion. We have a very strong partnership between India and France regarding Defence. I don’t want to comment on any other thing,'' French President Emmanuel Macron told ANI.
The French President had earlier distanced himself from the controversy, saying he was not in power when the multi-billion dollar agreement for the 36 fighter jets was signed between New Delhi and Paris.
While addressing a press conference on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session, Macron was asked if the Indian Government had at any point told France or Dassault - the French aerospace major - that they had to accept Reliance Defence as the Indian partner for the Rafale deal.
India had inked an inter-governmental agreement with France in September last year for procurement of 36 Rafale fighter jets at a cost of around Rs 58,000 crore, nearly one-and-half years after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the proposal during a visit to Paris.
The delivery of the jets is scheduled to begin from September 2019.
While Prime Minister Modi has not spoken on the Rafale controversy himself, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and other senior ministers have asserted that people of India have put a closure to the issue, saying there were no irregularities.
Prime Minister Modi had announced the procurement of a batch of 36 Rafale jets after holding talks with the then French president Francois Hollande on April 10, 2015, in Paris.
The final deal was sealed on September 23, 2016.
The French government had recently said it was in no manner involved in the choice of Indian industrial partners.
The Rafale deal has landed in the trouble waters after a report in the French media quoted former president Hollande as saying that the selection of the Indian company in the Rafale deal was done at the behest of New Delhi.
Hollande said that the Indian government proposed Reliance Defence as the partner for the French aerospace giant in the Rafale deal and France did not have a choice.
His comments to 'Mediapart', a French-language publication, triggered sharp reactions from the opposition parties which have been accusing the government of massive irregularities in the deal and benefiting Reliance Defence Limited despite not having any experience in the aerospace sector.
The report quoted Hollande as saying, "It was the Indian Government that proposed this service group, and Dassault which negotiated with (Anil) Ambani. We had no choice, we took the interlocutor who was given to us."
In its statement, Dassault Aviation said the contract for the supply of 36 Rafale jets is a government-to-government agreement, adding, "It provides for a separate contract in which Dassault Aviation commits to make compensation investments (offsets) in India worth 50 percent of the value of the purchase."
The company also said its partnership with Reliance has led to the creation of the Dassault Reliance Aerospace Ltd (DRAL) joint-venture in February 2017.
It is to be noted that the Congress has been demanding a JPC probe into the Rafale deal, which it said was the biggest defence scam of the country.
However, after the French President's confirmation, the ruling BJP has hit back at the Congress party and accused it of running a smear campaign to defame the Modi government at the international level.
(With PTI inputs)