A day after the Supreme Court rejected the Centre's plea on the Rafale deal documents, Union Defence Minister and senior BJP leader Nirmala Sitharaman tells The Indian Express that this cannot be viewed as a setback for the government. Excerpts:
Is the Supreme Court's decision to dismiss the government's claim of privilege on the Rafale deal documents a setback for the government?
Not at all… There is a review petition, a plea for the Supreme Court to review its December 2018 verdict on the Rafale deal… Even as the plea is there with the court, because some news appeared in some publication, printing documents which otherwise belong to the ministry… the issue before the court… was whether those documents can also be taken on board… These are secret, classified documents. When such documents are taken away, illegally, it was thought fit that it should be highlighted. Therefore, we said would the court want to take cognisance of such documents that had been illegally obtained… On that argument, the court has said it's alright, let those documents also be placed before the court when they consider the review petition. That's all that happened.
If the decision on the review petition is not in favour of the government, will there be a review of the deal also?
Not at all. The petitioner was well within his right to ask for a review. But the December verdict was exhaustive - it looked at the prices, the process and the offset policy. Now, if the review has to happen, the court can take a call on the basis of some documents which we are saying were illegally obtained… I would think even if they go into the merits of the issue, we have nothing to worry about. If the court requests something, we will produce every document. I am not worried about it at all.
One judge said protection of documents would be an injustice if it is in defence of an accused person who is at a top position. Will this cause people to cast aspersions on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as the Opposition has accused him of impropriety in the Rafale deal?
I am not sure whether the court wants to cast aspersions. I am not going to interpret the judgment in any other way. What the court has said is that those documents could also be placed before it. It did not even touch on the merits of the review petition. As much as I have read the judgment, there is no casting aspersions.
The Congress manifesto promises a probe into the Rafale deal.
If they are really honest about transparency, before they think about probing others, they should answer where they are on the AgustaWestland issue - who is AP, who is FAM? Is FAM the one with Rahul Gandhi when he went to file his nomination? I didn't see a single district party president or local MLA accompanying the Congress candidate in Amethi… They should first be above board themselves.
The Rafale deal took place before you took charge.
I don't see it as something that did not happen in my term. It is our government, he is our Prime Minister… I will defend my government because I believe in Modiji's leadership. I defend the government because I believe in my party… we will never do anything wrong. We don't have dalals operating on behalf of the government. Since there is nothing wrong in the deal, it is in national interest, I take extreme pride in defending it.
Pakistan has taken the international media to Balakot to prove that the Indian air strike did not cause any damage.
First of all, they needed 40 days to take select journalists. The information that I have is that they took them to the madrasa, which was never attacked, never touched, and never part of the scheme. Second, they would have taken them on a guided tour. The place where the suicide bombers are trained has not been made accessible… Even if you are showing the exterior, what happened inside - these questions are not answered. So it doesn't matter. They can do the necessary whitewashing, they can take as many people as they want.
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has said that peace talks may stand a better chance if the BJP comes to power. The Opposition has targeted Prime Minister Narendra Modi on this.
The Opposition always jumps on these statements, references from Pakistan. They should see how people are assessing them versus the government of the day.
Earlier, BJP president Amit Shah had said there would be fireworks in Pakistan if the BJP was defeated.
If this has to be seen in context, the Congress should explain what happened to Mani Shankar Aiyar's appeals in Pakistan for help to remove Modi. Many other leaders here wanted Pakistan to play a role in removing Modi. So, is this also part of that scheme of things? A statement one way sometimes, some other way another time, is that because it's a part of the help they sought from Pakistan?
After so much talk of development, why is this election being based on nationalism? The Opposition has said the Modi government is hiding behind the valour of soldiers.
Since Jana Sangh days, the emphasis of the BJP or Jana Sangh has been on putting the nation first. In the BJP office, you see a board that says 'Nation first, then party, and then the inpidual'… Whether it was the 2016 surgical strike or Balakot air strike, we had credible information that more attacks could happen. The Prime Minister took an action which should have been taken after the (Mumbai terror) attacks in 2016. The Prime Minister took the call that we will not tolerate any more terrorists coming from Pakistan, and therefore went and hit at the source, the fountainhead of the terror attacks. I underline the fact that not a single civilian was hurt. This was a clear pre-emptive, non-military action of finishing off terror. So why not talk about it?
But are elections to be fought on emotional issues only?
Post-Pulwama, when Union ministers were assigned to accompany the martyrs' bodies to their villagers, we realised that there was a sense of 'would we not return fire ever, wouldn't we punish the perpetrators of terror?' That was clearly written on the wall everywhere. Should the government respond or not? We showed our intent, that we don't want to suffer under terrorism… It's natural that it is talked about.
If the Balakot air strike had not happened, would the BJP have been so confident?
This government has taken several initiatives to mitigate the problems of farmers, unorganised labourers, restored the economy, recapitalised the bank and so on. The middle-class saw this government as one that could expand the tax net, generate more resources for different schemes… They also did not want the government to raise taxes… We have developed more resources, without hurting anyone else. People will remember this government anyway.
The Election Commission has put the Modi biopic on hold.
The Election Commission has the prerogative to take steps. We respect that. In any case, the film has not been made by the BJP.
Many of your Rajya Sabha colleagues are contesting the polls. Why aren't you?
The party decides.