As Supreme Court vets Rafale decisions, focus likely on bureaucratic shuffle too


As the Supreme Court moves to vet the decision-making process leading to the procurement of 36 Rafale fighter aircraft, part of the spotlight is also likely to fall on seemingly curious bureaucratic movements in the key Acquisition Wing of the Defence Ministry, which played a lead role in the negotiations.

Two top officers, who headed this wing through the period of these negotiations, took significantly different career paths.

Asha Ram Sihag, 1983 batch IAS officer of Himachal Pradesh cadre, who was made Director General (Acquisitions) in 2013, was suddenly shifted out of the Defence Ministry in the middle of a critical phase of the negotiations, just months before the Rafale deal was inked.

He was moved as Secretary, Union Public Services Commission, which is also apparently an additional secretary-level post but of much lesser prominence and value.

He was replaced by 1984-batch Tamil Nadu cadre officer Smita Nagaraj. She dealt with dissent notes and had the deal concluded nine months into her tenure.

A year later, she was made member, UPSC with a six-year term. She has now been dragged into the political dogfight over the Rafale deal with the Congress questioning the apparent oddity of her getting this job even though she had almost year to go for retirement in December 2017. Nagraj was “deemed to have retired” and given this assignment.


“In my view Sihag was punished by way of transfer. Rajeev Verma was not transferred but overruled by an officer straight higher than his rank-…Smita Nagaraj was to retire in eight months. If she retired normally, she would have retired as Additional Secretary but she was made UPSC member,” alleged senior Congress leader S Jaipal Reddy in a press conference last month.

Interestingly, Sihag was appointed at a time when the then United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was to take a final call on the cancellation of the VVIP chopper deal besides the acquisition of 126 medium multirole combat aircraft.

His entry also marked the exit of batchmate Upamanyu Chatterjee as Joint Secretary (Air). He was replaced by Rajeev Verma, one of three officers, who recorded his dissent on the Rafale deal.

It was under Sihag’s watch that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government rejected a German offer for Eurofighter jets at a 20% discount on grounds that consideration of the proposal would violate the Defence Procurement Policy and relevant CVC guidelines.

Two months after the PM announced purchase of 36 Rafale in Paris, the Defence Ministry withdrew the older UPA deal on Rafale in June 2015.

At some point during negotiations for the new 36 Rafale fighter jet deal with Dassault, fresh concerns appear to have been raised from within the acquisition wing, sources said. These were seen to be ‘slowing down’ the finalisation of the deal in the run up to French President Francois Hollande’s visit to India in January 2016. It was widely expected the deal would be inked on the margins of the visit, but that could not happen.

Curiously, a month before this visit, Sihag was suddenly transferred out of the ministry to UPSC and later as Secretary Coordination in Cabinet Secretariat.

He was finally empaneled as Secretary and deputed in August 2017 to the Department of Heavy Industries- one of the few ministries the BJP has handed over to its ally Shiv Sena.

Nagaraj replaced Sihag and took over the process in December 2015. The back and forth on various issues of difference continued.

As first reported by ET, three members of the Indian Negotiating Team recorded concerns over pricing, cost of India-specific enhancements as well as the non-consideration of a discounted offer by the only other competitor.

All the concerns raised were ultimately escalated to the Cabinet Committee on Security where the final decision was made at the highest level. The Rafale deal was signed on September 23, 2016.

In 2017, Nagaraj – who was until then a Secretary equivalent was elevated to Special Secretary rank. Verma, who had recorded dissent on the Rafale deal was moved to the Delhi Development Authority.

Few months later, in December 2017, the government appointed Nagaraj as member of the UPSC.

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