Nirmala Sitharaman to visit France, take stock of progress of Rafale fighter jets supply

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Union Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman will leave for France on Wednesday night on a three-day visit, which comes in the backdrop of a huge controversy over the procurement of 36 Rafale jets from French aerospace major Dassault Aviation.

Officials sources said Sitharaman will hold wide-ranging talks with her French counterpart Florence Parly on ways to deepen strategic cooperation between the two countries and also deliberate on major regional and global issues of mutual interests.

Sitharaman, who will hold with Parly the first edition of defence dialogue, will leave for Paris late Wednesday night and conclude her visit on Saturday, they said.

The sources said besides exploring ways to boost bilateral defence cooperation, Sitharaman will also take stock of progress in the supply of 36 Rafale jets by Dassault to the Indian Air Force under a Rs 58,000-crore deal.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced the procurement of a batch of 36 Rafale jets after talks with the then French President Francois Hollande on April 10, 2015 in Paris. The final deal was sealed on September 23, 2016.

The Congress has been alleging massive irregularities in the deal, saying the government was procuring each aircraft at a cost of over Rs 1,670 crore as against Rs 526 crore finalised by the UPA government when it was negotiating the deal.

The Congress has also been targeting the government over selection of Reliance Defence as an offset partner for Dassault. The government has vehemently rejected the allegations and asserted that it did not have any role in the selection of Reliance Defence.

Last month, Hollande was quoted by French publication ‘Mediapart’ as saying that France was given “no choice” on selection of the Indian partner for Dassault and the Indian government proposed the name of Reliance to partner with the French aerospace giant.

The former French president’s comments triggered a massive political row.

Sources said Sitharaman will discuss with Parly ways to expand Indo-French maritime security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region.

The two ministers are also likely to deliberate on joint production of military platforms and weapons by the two countries.

French President Emmanuel Macron had visited India in March during which the two countries decided to expand strategic ties and deepen counter-terror cooperation.

The two sides also inked a strategic pact providing for the use of each other’s military facilities including opening naval bases to warships.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Macron also decided to create an annual defence dialogue at the ministerial level to explore ways to further deepen defence and strategic ties. Sitharaman and Parly will hold the first edition of the defence dialogue.

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