The French government has refuted comments by Congress chief Rahul Gandhi in the Lok Sabha, and confirmed that information that is part of the Rafale deal with India is protected under secrecy agreements signed by the two countries in 2008. But the fact that France has refuted him doesn't matter much, according to Rahul.
The to-and-from is centered around Rahul's statements in the Lok Sabha on Friday that French President Emmanuel Macron had told him that there is no secrecy pact on the agreement for India's purchase of 36 Rafale omnirole fighter aircraft.
"Let them deny it if they want. He (Macron) said that before me. I was there, Anand Sharma and Dr Manmohan Singh were also there," he was quoted as saying to news agency ANI.
Rahul's reaction came shortly after France's Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs said classified information on defence deals enjoys protection under the security agreement signed by India and France in 2008, when Rahul's party led the UPA coalition that was in power.
The Congress and the ruling BJP have been locked in a war of words. The Congress has alleged foul play saying the deal for the 36 Rafale fighters signed during PM Modi's visit to France in 2016 was more expensive than the deal negotiated by the previous UPA government. The BJP-led NDA government has defended itself saying the information on the deal is classified and cannot be publicly released.
The French confirmation of this came on Friday evening. "We have noted the statement of Mr Rahul Gandhi before the Indian Parliament. France and India concluded in 2008 a Security agreement, which legally binds the two States to protect the classified information provided by the partner, that could impact security and operational capabilities of the defence equipment of India or France," said an unidentified spokesperson of France's Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs in response to a question about Rahul Gandhi's claims.
The response was released by the French government in a Q & A format that spared it the need for an explanatory note on the controversy. "These provisions naturally apply to the IGA concluded on 23 September 2016 on the acquisition of 36 Rafale aircraft and their weapons. As the President of the French Republic indicated publicly in an interview given to India Today on 9th March 2018, 'In India and in France, when a deal is very sensitive, we can't reveal all details'," the French spokesperson added.
Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had earlier rubbished Rahul's comments in the Lok Sabha as "absolutely wrong", and pointed out that the Congress is very well aware of the secrecy clause in the agreement with France, since it had led the government that signed it.
The deal for the purchase of 36 Rafale fighters had come after years of efforts by New Delhi to decide which fighter aircraft to buy as part of what has come to be known in international defence circles as the 'Indian MMRCA competition'. The Medium Multirole Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) tender saw India pick the French Rafale as its fighter of choice. But a deal for the purchase of 126 planes fell through on concerns of cost and technology transfer.
It is common for countries to protect information on the specifications of the orders for high-level weapons systems. Apart from the sensitivity of the defence technology, the secrecy also helps deny information on the capabilities of weapons systems to the purchasing countries adversaries.
These secrecy clauses may even cover the cost of the deal in some cases, to prevent adversaries from building educated estimates of what sort of weapons systems or sensors and radars are part of a weapons deal.