India, France set to widen scope of security pact

NEW DELHI: India is set to enhance the scope of the politically sensitive security and confidentiality agreement with France, which turned controversial when the defence ministry refused to part with exact cost details of the Rafale fighter deal in Parliament.

Just a few weeks ago, the defence ministry had said the 2008 security agreement barred it from sharing this information. This set off a political storm with the Opposition ramping up pressure to seek exact details.

The same agreement, which until now only related to defence, will be strengthened by an overarching arrangement to cover other areas where France is involved.

The agreement, which was in the final stages of being firmed up ahead of official talks between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and French President Emmanuel Macron on Saturday, will put in place an umbrella framework that would cover all sensitive departments that are dealing with France. Besides defence, this will include the National Security Council secretariat, and the departments of atomic energy and space, among others.

Under the agreement, both countries will commit not to divulge information classified ‘secret’ by either side. While much of this relates to sensitive technical information to enable transfer of technology, it seems to also cover cost details like in the Rafale deal.

Defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman, in her response to a query from a MP on the Rafale deal, had said: “As per Article 10 of the Inter-Governmental Agreement between the governments of India and France on the purchase of Rafale aircraft, the protection of the classified information and material exchanged under IGA is governed by the provisions of the Security Agreement signed between government of France and government of India in 2008.”

ET has learnt that France was keen to have a more robust general security agreement to have better control on the information it shares on specific projects and deals. India had inked a deal for 36 Rafale aircraft with France after scrapping the process to purchase 126 fighter jets. These 36 were off-the-shelf aircraft bought through a government-to-government arrangement, which is how the reference to the confidentiality agreement was made.

The Congress has claimed the United Progressive Alliance government had negotiated a better bargain per aircraft, demanding that the government go public with the details to allow a “fair comparison”.

On the other hand, the National Democratic Alliance government claims to have struck a better deal with France than what the UPA had managed.

The problem on both ends is that the UPA government had never firmed up the final cost. More so, of the 126 jets, only 18 were to be bought off-the-shelf. The rest were to be made in India.

However, the negotiations between Dassault, which manufactures the Rafale, and Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, which was to produce the fighter jets in India, had hit a deadlock. Dassault had said it could not guarantee the delivery schedule if HAL were to be involved.

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