Even before former cabinet ministers in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, Arun Shourie and Yashwant Sinha, along with Supreme Court advocate Prashant Bhushan could begin their Press Conference (PC) at the Delhi Press Club on Wednesday, regarding the Rafale Jet Fighter deal, senior I&B and PMO officials were furiously working their phones.
IndiaScoops.com has learnt that government officials and BJP spokespersons including a PR agency phoned several ‘friendly’ editors of newspapers and news TV channels requesting them to either boycott the PC or relegate it’s coverage to the inner pages and non-peak time TV telecast.
The Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group PR team was also on its toes, trying to find out which correspondents were attending the event.
IndiaScoops.com spoke to five senior editors – three from national dailies and two from mainline news channels who admitted off the record that they got ‘how are you’ calls from the I&B Ministry and the PMO inquiring if they were covering the PC called by the trio.
Other editors from pro-BJP outlets refused to speak to IndiaScoops.com, or simply banged down the phone when queried on the subject, but their impulsive curtness was an indication of their indignation.
Two editors told IndiaScoops.com that they were asked as to which reporter or correspondent was covering the event, while others were indirectly advised and reminded to prominently feature the government view in their reportage of the PC.
According to a report in the Indian Express at a press meet, Shourie, Sinha and Bhushan said public sector unit Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, which was part of the original negotiations, was pushed out and a newly-minted company, Reliance Defence Ltd, which had zero experience in defence manufacturing bagged an offset contract. They said such an agreement between Reliance Defence and Dassault Aviation, which makes Rafale jets, should have come after governmental approval.
Sinha said Bofors “pales into insignificance” when compared to this “scam”. They said statements of then foreign secretary S Jaishankar and Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar suggest that none of them were aware of the new deal to buy 36 jets, against 126 aircraft as per a Request for Proposal issued in 2007, for which Dassault had been selected as it was the lowest bidder, reports the Indian Express.
“Nobody in the Air Force or the defence ministry was aware” of the reduction, Bhushan told media persons at the PC.
They also said there were no additional add-ons as per Indian specifications, as claimed by the government, compared to the original RFP. They quoted the joint statement by India and France on April 10, 2015, which mentioned that the 36 jets to be delivered by Dassault “and associated systems and weapons would be delivered on the same configuration as had been tested and approved by the Indian Air Force”.
Calling it an “enormous scandal which jeopardizes national security”, Shourie asked the government to make details of the deal public, reports Indian Express.
Regarding Dassault’s deal with Reliance Defence, he asked if it could have happened “without a nudge and a wink” from the government. He highlighted that offset guidelines of the government issued on April 1, 2016, mention that “all offset proposals will be processed by the Acquisition Manager and approved by Raksha Mantri, regardless of their value”.
A joint statement issued by the Bhushan, Sinha and Shourie said, “Could an experienced manufacturer like Dassault have picked a company that had no experience whatsoever of manufacturing aircraft…without the approval from the government and particularly the PM?”
The statement said a “private party which has had absolutely no experience in manufacturing aerospace and defence equipment has been handed an enormous financial benefit.” They demanded an independent audit by Comptroller and Auditor General.
The government machiney spun into action immediately after the PC was over. A statement was ready and emailed to most media persons. Correspondents from wire services were also sent the government’s version to counter the allegations made by the trio.
A few hours after the press meet, Arun Jaitley wrote in a blog post, “There is not a grain of truth in the wild allegations repeated today nor anything substantiating in the purported facts and voluminous documents marshaled to corroborate the baseless accusations,” he claimed
Jaitley added that the allegations constitute nothing but “reprocessed lies by forces increasingly desperate to prove their relevance”. He said the government had already responded effectively to every distortion and misinformation on the issue.” reported the Indian Express.