Defence Minister says parties must engage on the issue because as in 2014, people are aspirational

While speaking on a range of issues, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman asked the Opposition to discuss development rather than communal issues.

How are the American sanctions on Russian entities affecting our payments to Moscow?

Payments we want to make, but in some cases the banks have a problem in terms of taking the payments. They are being talked about. Some discussions are happening with Russia. We are trying how to sort it out, because these payments are for spare parts of existing platforms. With Russia we have a continued relationship. We bought equipment over the decades. That has been expressed to them [U.S.].

How is the defence cooperation with Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries progressing? You were recently in the region..

With South East Asian nations, ASEAN countries, with some of them we do have defence cooperation and we continue with them. I recently visited Cambodia and Vietnam and with whom we have quite lot of engagements. Our trainers have been helping their Air Force, Navy and Army. Only recently during the visit we laid the foundation for an Information and Communication Technology (ICT) which is being built at the cost of Indian lending money.

There is already a $500m line of credit given to Vietnam. Additional credit is also being extended to Vietnam. We are giving them a lot of support in training their Navy personnel. That relationship is actually getting strengthened with Cambodia and Vietnam.

Similarly, recently we had the Indonesian Defence Minister. So with Indonesia there is a lot of discussion about how their ports can be used by us, trans-shipments and also their staff both Army and Navy have been sharing their thoughts. A white shipping agreement, the draft has been sent to them. Also some maritime awareness building, coastal security radars both Indonesia and Vietnam we have been talking with them. These are concrete specific engagements with ASEAN countries, with Malaysia too.

We have asked if we can become a part of the Malacca Strait patrol about which the Indonesian and Singaporean defence ministers have spoken to me in detail. We are also looking at ways we can strengthen cooperation with Singapore. Lot of active engagement is taking place. Most of these countries are very keen in maritime information sharing, training of personnel, also looking at how some of the equipment and platforms that we manufacture, if they can benefit from it, buy from us or have us help them in producing some of them. So entire South East Asian league of counties the Act East policy is clearly working.

How are engagements with China evolving after the recent setbacks?

I met with the Chinese Defence Minister twice, in St. Petersburg and in Beijing for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meeting. The engagements are there. We have placed our views on different matters. One of the issues I have laid emphasis on is to have a hotline — if there is a need for us to call up somebody and seek their inputs, so that we can directly defuse any situation as and when it arises. Without that you are talking at different levels each time. And when you talk at different levels each time, you tend to lose time in getting a final resolution. So we have emphasised the need to have a hotline and greater engagement, talking to each other so that there are no tensions.

‘Make in India’ in the defence sector has really not taken off. What are the roadblocks?

Within India, small and medium as well as large industries have invested, built capabilities and created capacities and are expecting us to give them orders. Now again the second problem comes here. Guess ‘Make in India’, means I have to support India, whether private or public. The Ministry, in its desire to be absolutely transparent and open, has brought in so many procedures that at the end of the day, you are spending time on the procurement and not having the outcome. We are now trying to make it simpler. That is why rules for Make-II are also being brought out. Again, that is also going to take time for everyone to approve it. We will put that effort, inter-ministerial consultations will have to happen, the system will have to accept it.

You really kick-started the present round of controversy surrounding Rahul Gandhi’s statement to some Muslim intellectuals.

Let us be clear on what I said that day. I showed a copy of a newspaper report which was very well read through several times, translated, everything done. Based on that story, which says — I am not saying — that the Congress president went to meet a set of intellectuals, an expression which was used in the newspaper, met with Muslim intellectuals and said the Congress is a Muslim party, and we probably need to do some course correction, we had gone off the track and did some things which I will correct now and get back to being where we were.

These are as claimed by the newspaper and I have raised these questions. Is this what Rahul Gandhi said? If they need course correction what are these course corrections? You may say that the story was fake. Today, every party is made to answer fake news. So it is either for the newspaper or for the speaker himself who is president of the party to answer.

During your press conference you accused the Congress of playing the communal card. Most people are quite fed up with the communal tone in our politics. What is it that leaders can do to raise above such petty politics?

It is a very pertinent question. I want to be very clear on one thing. The PM or the party, whether in 2014 or ahead of the 2019 poll, are constantly only talking about vikas [development]. Now we would expect parties to engage on that issue because now even as in 2014 people are aspirational. That is why we in the BJP and the PM in particular are repeatedly without being tired saying vikas.. It should be that on which we should be questioned, we should answer. So should not the Opposition, stand up and say this is what we have to offer. Instead what happens, you are constantly pointed out for something not absolutely true.

Are you implying that development is the main plank?

Yes, 100 percent. Idea is that a transparent process through which the Government is working actually very clearly targeting those who deserve to get the facilities, infrastructure, assistance, financial inclusion and above all, most important for this country, corruption free Government. And that is not to say just top level. Yes, top level 100 percent there is no corruption. No corridors are full of dalals any longer in Delhi. Does it stop there? Even Group C and D positions have been announced. You don’t even need to have attested copies. Attestation you spend Rs. 100 to get 10 copies attested. You apply as per the vacancy you get it online. His attempt has been very clearly not just remain in Delhi and look at facilities or policies but also make sure of the ground level benefits.

So our plank for 2019 very clearly will be Do we as Indians need a Government which is working in an open transparent manner to make sure that we don’t forget the poor and needy but also make sure that the country moves forward.

So do you ask the Opposition to abandon those petty debates?

I would ask them to say please come out with what is it that you are going to provide India with, what kind of leadership are you going to give. Are we providing a large gathbandhan that is going to make the PM cry in public or is it going to give a decisive leadership, is it going to give a clean leadership? Is it going to give India a direction, though we have already entered that, towards the 21st century.

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