First Rafale Fighter By September, Defence Minister Tells Parliament

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Rafale row: Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman speaks in parliament during the winter session

New Delhi:

Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, replying to an acrimonious debate in parliament on the Rafale jet deal today, said timely purchase of ammunition is "very important" for the country, given its volatile neighbourhood.

"There is a difference between defence dealings and dealing in defence. We don't do defence dealings. We deal in defence with national security as a priority," the minister said in her response to the three-day debate. "National security is important, no matter who is in power. We cannot run away from facts."

Ms Sitharaman said the assumption that the Rafale fighters were available off the shelf was "mistaken", referring to the deal for 126 Rafale jets during the previous Congress-led government. Eighteen of those jets were to be delivered in fly-away condition.

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"By 2014, you couldn't even get these 18 aircraft. Why? There wasn't a deal? Today you get up to say what sense of urgency?"

The minister said in the new deal, the delivery of the 36 aircraft has been advanced by five months. "The inter-government agreement was signed in September 2016, and the first aircraft will be delivered in September 2019, the last in 2022," said Ms Sitharaman.

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"Youngsters, please listen to the defence minister carefully," Rahul Gandhi said at parliament today.

Earlier, Congress president Rahul Gandhi said there would be a criminal investigation into the Rafale deal if his party comes to power in this year's national elections. He said Prime Minister Narendra Modi was being accused of wrongdoings in the deal but was running away from the questions posed to him. "If we come to power in 2019, there will be criminal investigation and people responsible will be punished," he said.

The opposition has demanded a Joint Parliamentary Committee probe into the deal even though the Supreme Court recently gave a clean chit to the government. Mr Gandhi said the youth of the country are putting questions to the prime minister.

The Congress chief said the Indian Air Force wanted 126 fighter planes but the government is purchasing only 36 planes. "Were national security considerations taken into consideration (while taking the decision)?"

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