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Hollande triggers war of words

Hollande triggers war of words
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Former French president Francois Hollandes startling claim on the Rafale deal has snowballed into a huge war of words between the Centre and the...

New Delhi: Former French president Francois Hollande's startling claim on the Rafale deal has snowballed into a huge war of words between the Centre and the Opposition. Congress president Rahul Gandhi, in his sharpest attack on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on Saturday said: "Former French president Francois Hollande is calling the Prime Minister of India a thief" and that the PM needs to break his silence.

Calling the Rafale deal corrupt, Rahul Gandhi said it was "obvious that Modi is corrupt." Union Law Minister and senior BJP leader Ravi Shankar Prasad angrily responded that Rahul Gandhi had made a "shameful, irresponsible statement".
"Former French president calls our PM a thief... What is staggering is that the Prime Minister is still silent on it. Not a single word from him... It is very important for the Prime Minister now to either accept Hollande's statement or state that Hollande is lying and tell what the truth is," Gandhi said at a press conference in the afternoon.

The Narendra Modi government, however, asserted that it did not have any role in the selection of Reliance Defence as a partner for Dassault while France said it was in ‘no manner’ involved in the choice of any Indian industrial associate for the contract. Dassault Aviation said the decision to partner with Reliance Defence Ltd (RDL) to fulfill offset obligations of the deal was its own.

Hollande, who was French president when the Rs 58,000 crore deal was announced, was quoted as saying by French publication 'Mediapart' that France was given ‘no choice’ on selection of the Indian partner for Dassault and the Indian government proposed the name of Reliance to partner with the French aerospace giant.

News agency AFP reported that Hollande told it on the sidelines of a meeting in Canada on Friday that France "did not choose Reliance in any way". When asked whether India had put pressure on Reliance and Dassault to work together, Hollande said he was unaware and "only Dassault can comment on this".

However, Hollande's office said on Saturday that he stood by his comments. The sensational comments quoted to Hollande gave a new twist to the controversy as the Union government has been maintaining it was not officially aware whom the Dassault Aviation has selected as its Indian partner to fulfil offset obligations of the deal.

The opposition has been alleging that government was favouring RDL. The report quoted Hollande as saying, "It was the Indian government that proposed this service group, and Dassault who negotiated with Ambani. We had no choice, we took the interlocutor who was given to us."

Both Dassault and RDL have already announced setting up of a joint venture to manufacture aerospace components and fulfill offset obligations for the Rafale deal. Under India's offset policy, foreign Defence entities are mandated to spend at least 30 per cent of the total contract value in India through procurement of components or setting up of research and development facilities.

"The government has stated earlier and again reiterates that it had no role in the selection of Reliance Defence as the Offset partner," the Defence ministry said in a statement. It also said the reported statement of Hollande needs to be seen in "its full context where the French media has raised issues of conflict of interest involving persons close to the former President." Prasad has also rejected Hollande's claim on the Rafale deal, saying it does not know under what compulsion he said so.

It is seen as a reference to a recent media report linking the Rafale deal with a film by Hollande's partner Julie Gayet. The report had said Ambani's Reliance Entertainment had signed an agreement with Gayet to produce a film before the Rafale deal was sealed. "Incidentally, media reports of February, 2012 suggest that Dassault Aviation, within two weeks of being declared the lowest bidder for procurement of 126 aircraft by the previous government, had entered into a pact for partnership with Reliance Industries in defence sector," the defence ministry said.

The previous UPA government was negotiating with Dassault for procurement of 126 Rafale jets under which 18 jets were to supplied in a fly-away condition and 108 were to be manufactured in India by the French company along with HAL. However, the UPA could not seal the deal.

In its statement, the French government said it is in "no manner involved in the choice of Indian industrial partners who have been, are being, or will be selected by French companies". Dassault said it has decided to make a partnership with the Reliance Defence in accordance with the policy of 'Make in India'. "This offsets contract is delivered in compliance with the Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) 2016 regulations.

In this framework, and in accordance with the policy of Make in India, Dassault Aviation has decided to make a partnership with India's Reliance Group. This is Dassault Aviation's choice," it said. Modi had announced the procurement of a batch of 36 Rafale jets after talks with Hollande on April 10, 2015 in Paris. The final deal was sealed on September 23, 2016.

The Congress has been alleging massive irregularities in the deal, saying the government was procuring each aircraft at a cost of over Rs 1,670 crore as against Rs 526 crore finalised by the UPA government when it was negotiating the deal. The Opposition parties have also alleged Reliance Defence was formed just 12 days before the announcement of the Rafale deal in 2015.

Reliance group has rejected the charges. The Congress has also been demanding answers from the government on why state-run aerospace major HAL was not involved in the deal as finalised during the UPA.

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