CRITICS of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have called for the leader to resign over allegations of corruption in a military jet deal, following claims by French president Francois Holland that New Delhi had meddled in the selection of a local partner.
Modi’s political opponents launched their latest attacks at him last week, taking aim at the 2016 purchase of 36 Rafale planes from Dassault Aviation in a deal worth some US$8.7 billion.
The critics claim the government had overpaid for the aircraft and the deal was not transparent.
The opposition also pointed out the appointment of billionaire Indian businessman Anil Ambani’s company, Reliance Defence, instead of a state-run manufacturer with decades of experience, Reuters reported.
“We are absolutely convinced that the Prime Minister of India is corrupt. This question is clearly settled into minds of people that the country’s watchman (Modi) is a thief,” said Rahul Gandhi, President of the Indian National Congress, as quoted by the Hindu Times.
Gandhi said a clarification on the matter from Modi was essential as the dignity of the prime minister’s office is at stake.
“What the ex-President of France is saying is that Prime Minister of India is a thief. It is very important for the Prime Minister now to either accept Mr. Hollande’s statement or say that Mr. Hollande is not telling the truth and here is the truth. For the first time probably in Indian history, an ex-President is calling our PM a thief,” Gandhi said.
Gandhi also added that Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman or Finance Minister Arun Jaitley were defending the deal even though they did not sign it.
“What I am surprised by is that Prime Minister is completely silent. Not one word has come from PM on this comment. After all, this gentleman is not just any person. This gentleman is the ex-President of France, who had one-on-one meeting with the Prime Minister where the Rafale deal was decided,” Gandhi said.
On Friday, Hollande, who cleared the bilateral deal during his term in office, said New Delhi had put pressure on Dassault to choose Reliance.
“We had no choice. We took the interlocutor that was given to us,” he was reported as telling the French news service Mediapart, fuelling a political storm in India.
India’s defence procurement rules stipulate that a foreign firm must invest at least 30 percent of the contract in India to help it build up its manufacturing base and wean off imports.
According to Reuters, Modi’s office did not respond to a request for comment, but the defence ministry posted a tweet saying both the French and Indian governments did not have a say on the matter.
“The report referring to fmr French president Mr. Hollande’s statement that GoI (government of India) insisted upon a particular firm as offset partner for the Dassault Aviation in Rafale is being verified.
“It is reiterated that neither GoI nor French Govt had any say in the commercial decision.”
India’s order of Rafale planes was aimed at replacing its ageing fleet of Russian aircraft from fleets that included Lockheed Martin ‘s F-16, Saab’s Gripen, the Eurofighter Typhoon, Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and the Russian MiG-35.
Reliance did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Dassault denied the report, saying it had picked Reliance as a partner for industrial reasons.
“This is Dassault Aviation’s choice, as (Dassault) CEO Eric Trappier explained in an interview published in MINT newspaper on April 17,” the company, which also makes Falcon business planes, said in a statement.
“Dassault Aviation and Reliance have built a plant in Nagpur for manufacturing parts for Falcon and Rafale aircraft. The Nagpur site was chosen because of the availability of land with direct access to an airport runway, an essential condition (for) aeronautic activities.”
The French foreign ministry published a statement saying French authorities were not involved in the choice of Indian industrial partners involved in the Rafale deal.
“The French government is in no way involved in the choice of the Indian industrial partners which have been, are or will be, chosen by French companies,” the statement said.
“In accordance with the Indian procedure, French companies have full freedom to choose the Indian industrial partners they consider to be most pertinent and then to propose to the Indian government for approval the offset projects they want to carry out in India with local partners to respect their obligations,” it added.