Rafale: Opposition steps up attack; Congress says Modi would be ‘Accused No.1’

NEW DELHI/LUCKNOW, Feb 11: Stepping up its attack on the government over the Rafale deal, Congress on Monday said Prime Minister Narendra Modi would have been the “number one accused” if the long-awaited anti-corruption ombudsman Lokpal had been in place and even his “broad shoulders” cannot bear the “bullets of corruption”.

The attack came from Congress and other opposition parties at multiple platforms, including inside Parliament, at a day-long fast by Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu seeking a special status for his state and during a Lucknow road show by Congress chief Rahul Gandhi and his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra.

The CPI (M) asked the Supreme Court to revisit its earlier ruling on the Rafale matter and sought a high-level probe to get to bottom of what it described as a “scam”, while BSP supremo Mayawati accused the government of ignoring national security for the sake of ‘chowkidar’ (watchman), a barb often used by the Opposition for the prime minister.

While the BJP leaders continued to accuse opposition leaders of getting into a huddle to save them from the government’s anti-corruption crackdown, Gandhi at his roadshow asked the crowd to repeat after him his often-repeated slogan ‘Chowkidar chor hai’ (Watchman is the thief).

Hundreds of kilometre away in Moradabad, also in Uttar Pradesh, senior BJP leader and Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh said, “Chowkidar chor nahi, chowkidar pure hai. Next PM sure hai, problem ke liye cure hai (“The watchman is not a thief, he is a pure man. He is sure to be the next PM and is a cure for problems.”

A day before the government is scheduled to present a CAG audit report into the multi-billion dollar Rafale deal, the Opposition also raised questions about credibility of the government auditor alleging a “conflict of interest”.

Congress has asked the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) Rajiv Mehrishi to recue himself from the audit as he was finance secretary when the jet purchase was negotiated. Union Minister Arun Jaitley, however, has rebutted the claims, saying the Congress was casting aspersions on CAG based on “falsehood”.

Citing a new report in the Hindu newspaper, which claimed that India made “major and unprecedented” concessions including on anti-corruption penalties, sovereign guarantee and escrow account for the jet purchase agreement with France, the Congress said the Rafale issue is unravelling faster than the government thought.

This followed another report last week, citing internal Defence Ministry files, about concerns raised by some top ministry officials on the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) allegedly conducting “parallel negotiations” before the deal was finalised.

In Parliament, senior Congress leader Veerappa Moily led the charge in attacking the government and said if anybody has to be held guilty in Rafale deal, “it is the PM and PM alone”.

During a discussion on the interim budget, he also alleged the defence budget has seen only a paltry increase in absolute terms and the allocation to the sector as percentage of the GDP has gone down. He accused the ruling BJP of using money to “buy” MLAs, build “palatial” offices and filling its coffers.

On the Rafale deal, Moily said, “Now it is crystal clear why Lokpal (law) is not being implemented If it had been in place, the PM would be number one accused.”

In an apparent reference to Modi’s comments about his “56-inch chest”, Moily said, “When bullet of corruption is hit, his broad shoulders cannot bear it.”

Before leaving for Lucknow, Gandhi also attacked the government over Rafale issue when he went to express support to Andhra chief minister Naidu at his sit-in protest site in the national capital.

Citing the Hindu report on alleged concession made by the government on anti-corruption clause in the Rafale deal, he alleged it is “clear” now that the prime minister stole from the people of Andhra Pradesh and other states and gave the money to industrialist Anil Ambani.

Ambani’s Reliance Group has denied the allegations.

Naidu’s fast became another platform for opposition unity with presence of several leaders including former prime minister Manmohan Singh, Loktantrik Janata Dal’s Sharad Yadav, AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal, Farooq Abdullah of National Conference, NCP’s Majeed Memon, Trinamool Congress’ Derek O’ Brien and Samajwadi Party founder Mulayam Singh Yadav.

Separately at a press conference, Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari said his party wants to raise a fundamental question about waiving the anti-corruption clauses and the answer is very simple that it was because there has been corruption in the Rafale deal.

Tewari said implications of the action of alleged waiving of the anti-corruption clauses in the deal meant that the French, especially the suppliers — Dassault and missile-maker MBDA — were indemnified.

Dassault and MBDA were in the “driver’s seat” in the Rafale deal negotiations and not the Government of India, he alleged.

Senior Congress leader and former finance minister P Chidambaram said, “No sovereign guarantee, no bank guarantee, no escrow account, yet a huge amount was paid as advance.”

“No penalty clause for undue influence, no clause against agency commission, no clause for access to suppliers’ accounts, and Dassault goes laughing all the way to the bank,” he alleged. (PTI)