rafale: I’m not undermining HAL but need to look at reality: Nirmala Sitharaman


The government had reached the Rafale deal with France without any internal dissent, defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman told
Shaurya Karanbir Gurung and
Manu Pubby in an extensive interview in which she spoke about a range of issues including the recent S-400 deal with Russia and her upcoming trip to France. She emphasised that there are no longer any middlemen in the defence ministry and that her response in a TV show to a question on beheading by Pakistani terrorists was misinterpreted.
Now that the S-400 deal has been signed and American statements have indicated possible sanctions, should India be concerned?
It’s not just after the signing of the contract, but even before it a lot of discussions happened within the ministry. The need for a missile system like that has been well established. Except for China, no one else has an S-400. The importance and criticality of procuring a system like that need not be emphasised. I think that Prime Minister Modi was very clear. That we have to be taking care of India’s position, located as we are, especially with both our borders having to be given that much more attention. He wanted to be sure that our armed forces are not left without the best of equipment. So we took a conscious call. The Prime Minister was clear that it’s in India’s interests.

There is also the question of difficulties in processing payments to Russia due to American financial sanctions…
As regards payments, sanctions are being imposed on Russia and not so much on us. The statement which came from the US probably says that they are not looking at country specific sanctions but more at identified people and institutions in Russia. It doesn’t affect us so much but, yes, we have to see how the payments are going to be made.

You are visiting France in the next few days. Could you tell us about the visit and what is on the agenda, including a possible meeting with the French President?
Well, the appointment with the President is not finalised yet. It is likely that it will happen. It is a visit which has been pending for a long time. Annual discussions of the ministerial level meeting are due, and therefore this visit. There is no other special context. But France has been maintaining a very special relationship with India on defence matters. There are so many agenda points for our discussion. They have asked me to visit a few of their air force and naval bases. It might be useful because I am going with a good delegation from the ministry, represented by the Army, Navy and Air Force. This is one way of building from strength to strength with the French.

Will you visit Dassault facilities during the tour?
I don’t know. I only have the first sketch of the brief. It’s only after this that they will tie up a few more things.

Do you think the Rafale controversy will be a handicap for the French given that they are in contention for two possible contracts for India’s Navy and Air Force?
Well, the RFI (request for information) which has been issued will have its own standards and quality specifications. It will also have the IAF (Indian Air Force) going through the process. As and when there are purchases for any other force, or navy, each one will go through each of the process. Their trials and everything else will be done. I don’t think any particular discussion or controversy influences the other. Each one goes by the list of its merits.

Do you think the dissent notes on Rafale were handled in the right manner?
For every discussion, not just on Rafale, whether it is a technical team, a civil team, a negotiating team, they all have open discussion. Even in the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC), you have a lot of discussion. Everything is recorded. Everyone is free to say what they want. Every voice will be entered. So suppose there is a voice which is different and the rest are roughly on the same page, discussions carry on. But once the final call is taken, it is the final version which prevails.

While the discussion happens, that one voice which is different would have been answered. In this specific case of Rafale, after the final discussions one position was taken by everybody. When I say everybody, even this particular person who had a different voice, not a dissent voice during the discussion, was on the same page as everyone else. Otherwise, why would you think that the cabinet note which went, went with his signature? So dissension is not difference of opinion when the initial discussions are happening… they are different voices. Once the collective decision is made, if the person was indeed, as you say, dissenting, would he be the one to sign it to send to the cabinet for approval.

I want you to understand that in the process of taking a decision, every voice is recorded. To pick on a voice that was different from what the decision was… was later on. And to say if that is dissent, no that is not dissent, that is difference at the level of discussion, post that everybody is on the same page once the collective decision has been made.

The BJP has raised the question of a middleman in the Rafale deal during the UPA tenure. Was that a matter of concern when the Rafale decision was taken, and is the defence ministry today free of middlemen?
I can say for sure that the defence ministry has no middlemen walking here or influencing or trying to influence our decisions. With the guidance of the Prime Minister all of us are taking a call transparently. So no middlemen find space in the corridor. As regards the party saying something, I am not going to spend time on do I have proof or don’t. But why couldn’t they (UPA government) conclude a deal, if so much time was spent on it?

Was the benchmark price (in the Rafale deal) changed?
Those details are in the records.

There is a perception that only 36 jets have been procured when the number the air force projected was much higher at 126.
No. In the (previous) MMRCA deal, some were to be procured in ready-to-fly condition and some others to be produced with a joint venture. The total requirement was 126, 18 in fly-away condition and the rest from HAL and Dassault, with a certain timeline. What have we done is we ordered two squadrons in place of one, 36 in place of 18… 108 were to be produced if Dassault and HAL had agreed. For that we have gone for an RFI (global competition). Where is the number reduced?

If anything in fly-away condition we are getting more than what they had. That’s because we wanted something quickly. That which could come quickly and was ready to use – we are better off than them. So the number is not being reduced. The methodology is not changed. Here we went for fly-away, two in place of one squadron and the rest we are going through an RFI. Where is the reduction?

The Air Force chief last week spoke about HAL’s capabilities and HAL falling behind on delivery of frontline fighters. What is the ministry doing about this and ramping up capabilities of HAL?

When we talk about capacity I don’t want a quick response that HAL doesn’t have capacity… I am giving you a calibrated explanation to say where they need help. That help is not something I came here to recognise. It could have been recognised 15 years ago, 10 years ago. Even as you gave the order for 40 (Tejas aircraft under UPA), you knew the timeline that annually they can produce only six or eight. So this debate unfortunately comes down to ‘has MoD (ministry of defence) questioned HAL’s capacity’?

We are talking of HAL’s scaling up, technologically becoming a lot more, skilling their manpower, expanding physical capacity. That’s where I had two sessions of what we can do to enhance capacity. To give you an example, not to undermine the capacities we have, the Sukhoi under licensed production is probably 45 per cent more than buying Sukhoi from Russia. Now from how many years has the Nashik unit of HAL been producing Sukhoi? Does it mean that you can’t produce Sukhoi? You can but with cost overheads.

What is it that you can do to bring the cost overheads down? Those sort of things I talk about when I talk of HAL. I regret that people who want to have meaningful engagement are not going into details. Let us be honest to ourselves. That doesn’t mean I am undermining my own PSU (public sector unit), but I need to look at the PSU’s reality and what Modi’s government has done within four years. Here I am talking politics… ten years, have you done something for enhancing its capacity?

What concrete steps have been taken by the ministry?
The first thing I have done for the Tejas is that their capacity to annually produce eight aircraft has now been increased to 16. I have doubled it. For this we have given enough support. We have told them that if they need additional space for testing and trials, we are willing to give it.

In Kashmir, there have been continuing instances of violence on the border and mutilations. There has also been some controversy over your remarks…
The difference is we are eliminating them at the border, and this I can tell you for sure. That’s not to say that nobody comes in; maybe someone manages to come in in spite of the watch. So elimination or pushback is happening there at the border. Again, they (Pakistani terrorists) might do it with impunity, but we do follow the conventions. In fact, I have seen (reports on) a comment that India’s minister has said… I was in a TV show … It was in a light-hearted mood… ‘Hum bhi karte hain’ (we also do it). That doesn’t mean ‘hum bhi kaatte hain’ (we also behead). India has never had a history of doing it… when I say ‘hum bhi karte hain’, it means we are pushing them back. To get back to me and say how dare… if only I had done (ordered mutilations) wouldn’t Pakistan be shouting, look this is what India’s army has done.

So please criticise me with some facts in hand. I am not seeking cover, but it was a light-hearted banter. The TV show has a blend of serious questions and jokes. I responded. For them (critics) to immediately say that India’s defence minister has said that don’t we follow any convention and we also behead them, what can I say?


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