At least two opposition Members of Parliament (MPs) questioned Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat on the border situation involving China at a defence standing committee meeting on Thursday, according to three people aware of the details.
Congress MP Rahul Gandhi and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) MP Kunwar Danish Ali also asked General Rawat questions about whether India was at a disadvantage due to having ordered fewer Rafale jets than what the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government planned, the people said.
The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s decision to enter a government-to-government deal — worth $8.7 billion — with France to buy 36 Rafales was announced in April 2015, with the deal signed a little more than a year later. This replaced the UPA’s decision to buy 126 Rafale aircraft, 108 of which were to be made in India by state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) using parts imported from France.
On the second day of the three-day meetings to examine the defence ministry’s demand for grants, Gandhi wanted to know what made the government settle for 36 jets instead of 126. General Rawat answered Gandhi’s queries by referring to the government’s flagship Make in India initiative, which encourages local manufacturing, and how the government planned to plug gaps in India’s defence infrastructure by placing orders with HAL, according to the people cited above.
To this, both Gandhi and Ali pointed out that HAL was not an offset partner in the deal.
“Gandhi was also curious about the ongoing disengagement process at the India-China border and Rawat was answering him,”.
However, Jual Oram, chairman of the committee, asked Gandhi to stick to the agenda. The Congress leader argued that the border situation was integral to the agenda on the table. Ali then requested Oram to allow MPs to question defence officials. There could now be a separate discussion on China.
General Rawat, who attended the meeting with defence secretary Ajay Kumar and other ministry officials, told Gandhi that defence minister Rajnath Singh had already made the government’s position clear about the border standoff, with Indian and Chinese troops having agreed to disengage in eastern Ladakh’s Pangong Tso after months of stand-off.
A Bharatiya Janata Party MP said the difference of opinion was not very significant. “There was no blame game,” he said. When contacted, Oram said he was not at liberty to divulge what transpired at the meeting. There was no immediate response from the defence ministry.