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Not If But When: India On Signing S-400 Deal With Russia

India appears to be carefully assessing the possible dates when the agreement on the S-400 missile defence system could be signed. One obvious date speculated upon is during the visit of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin next month. But could it be done earlier, with what consequences?

India’s Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman seemed to reflect the thinking in the government while briefing women journalists in Delhi. She noted that “negotiations (on the S-400) are in the final stage. We have to see when we can sign”.

She also made the interesting point that “our relationship with Russia is longstanding. It’s a constant issue of balancing and we have balanced (between U.S. and Russia)”.

Was she hinting that the S-400 deal could be signed later, maybe after the U.S. Congressional elections slated for November? This apparently was one of the points discussed during the first India-U.S. 2+2 Dialogue in Delhi earlier this month even though both sides insist the S-400 was never raised.

Sitharaman lauded the signing of the Communications Compatibility & Security Agreement (COMCASA) with theUnited States, pointing out that “we are the only non-NATO country to get the deal. It is an historic step forward in strengthening relations with the U.S.”.

Much of the briefing was devoted to answering questions about the Rafale fighter deal. Sitharaman rejected allegations of wrongdoing levelled by the Congress and dismissed the demand for an inquiry by a joint parliamentary committee. “Why a JPC? We are discussing it. We are talking about it in Parliament,” she said.

The Congress claims the Rafale deal did not follow defence procurement procedures and was intended to benefit industrialist Anil Ambani’s Reliance Defence. The charge is the deal would have brought in Reliance Defence as the offsets partner of Dassault, the French firm which makes the Rafale. The Congress says public sector undertaking Hindustan Aeronautics Limited would have been the loser in this arrangement.

But Sitharaman insisted that her government got a better deal in terms of price, capability, equipment, delivery and maintenance than the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) deal for 126 Rafales envisaged during the Congress-led UPA years.

Sitharaman said: “We have responded saying your (UPA) basic price and the basic price that I am getting, when compared with all the escalation and other things, is 9 per cent cheaper.”

She blamed the UPA for not doing enough to ensure Dassault picked HAL as its offsets partner.

“The then government (UPA) could have done anything to strengthen HAL’s offer to make sure that its terms were appealing enough for Dassault to conclude it (the deal) with HAL,” she said. “This entire issue of HAL not being chosen happened during their time. So what’s all this about–`You have not done this on HAL. Every question on HAL should go to them. You (referring to the UPA) have not taken care of HAL. You have not made the terms appealing enough for HAL to bid successfully with Dassault”.

Sitharaman accused the Congress of not doing enough to arrest the fall in the IAF’s squadron strength. “You had not finalised the purchase of Dassault aircraft for the depleting squadrons of the IAF.”

As for the charges regarding the violation of the offsets policy, the minister maintained that all the rules on this were framed during the UPA government’s tenure.


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