France's Macron hard-sells 36 more Rafales, India silent on deal
NEW DELHI: The India-France joint statement has no mention of the acquisition of another 36 Rafale fighters as hoped for by the French government even as President Emmanuel Macron declared that the defence contract is at the heart of the strategic partnership between the two countries.
Indian sources said a decision on more Rafale fighters will be taken once delivery of the initial lot of 36 jets begins though the two sides finally signed an agreement for nuclear reactors at Jaitapur. The Rafale deal has been at the centre of a political ruckus with Congress alleging corruption and BJP rejecting the charge vehemently.
The two countries inked a range of agreements on Saturday that are the building blocks of a wide arch of cooperation but the formal announcements skipped mention of discussions on further Rafale acquisitions though Macron clearly saw the deal as a significant marker in burgeoning India-France ties.
“India had made a sovereign decision in this respect and we are monitoring progress in the field. We very much want to continue the programme. It is a long-term contract which is mutually beneficial. I personally consider it as the heart of the strategic partnership,” Macron said.
France had wanted India to announce its interest in acquiring another 36 Rafale fighters, after the IAF inducts the first 36 jets being acquired under the Rs 59,000 crore contract (7.87 billion euro) mega deal inked in September 2016.
French defence minister Florence Parly, ahead of Macron’s ongoing visit to India, had written to her Indian counterpart Nirmala Sitharaman that France is keen to “initiate discussions on the proposal of providing an additional 36 aircraft to the IAF, with a very significant share of Make in India". She said, “A message to this effect during the visit would be particularly appreciated."
The Indian defence ministry, however, says “no decision has yet been taken” on whether to go in for the acquisition of two additional Rafale squadrons (each has 18 jets) in the future. “It will be taken at a later stage once the delivery of the first 36 jets begins,” said a source.
The first 36 Rafale jets are slated for induction at the Hasimara (West Bengal) and Ambala (Haryana) airbases between November 2019 and mid-2022. The IAF has projected the operational need to go in for another 36 Rafales in the backdrop of its depleting number of fighter squadrons as well as both Hasimara and Ambala having the requisite infrastructure to house two squadrons each, as was earlier reported by TOI.
All this comes amidst the ongoing political slugfest between the NDA government and Congress, with the latter levelling allegations that the “non-transparent” Rafale deal was vastly overpriced, violated defence procurement procedures, included no transfer of technology (ToT), and was intended to benefit the Anil Ambani-promoted Reliance Defence as the “offsets partner” of the French fighter manufacturer Dassault Aviation.
The government, however, has strongly rejected the “baseless and unfounded allegations”, stressing that it secured a “better deal” in terms of price, capability, equipment, delivery and maintenance than the one “notionally being negotiated” by the previous UPA regime for 126 Rafale jets under the now-scrapped MMRCA (medium multi-role combat aircraft) project.
“There is no scam here,” said defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman last w”eek, rejecting any comparison with the infamous Bofors howitzer scandal that brought down the Rajiv Gandhi government in 1989.