India defence minister wants swift deal on French Rafale jets

A Rafale fighter jet prepares to land at the air base in Saint-Dizier, in this file picture taken on Feb 13, 2015. India is close to finalising a deal for dozens of Rafale fighter jets during its prime minister's visit to France. -- PHOTO: AFP 
A Rafale fighter jet prepares to land at the air base in Saint-Dizier, in this file picture taken on Feb 13, 2015. India is close to finalising a deal for dozens of Rafale fighter jets during its prime minister's visit to France. -- PHOTO: AFP 

NEW DELHI (AFP) - India's defence minister said Monday that final negotiations to buy 36 Rafale fighter jets from France would start this month and end as soon as possible, after leaders of the two nations announced the deal last month.

On the eve of a visit by his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian to India, Manohar Parrikar said a bilateral committee would iron out details of the multi-billion dollar long-delayed agreement "in a time-bound manner".

"The government-to-government committee will be set up which will begin negotiations on the Rafale deal," Parrikar told the Press Trust of India news agency.

"The negotiations will start any time in May and we have to conclude them as early as possible," he said in the state of Goa.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that New Delhi had ordered 36 of the "ready to fly" planes following talks with President Francois Hollande during a visit to France last month.

The deal - estimated to be worth five billion euros (S$7.44 billion) - followed tortuous years-long negotiations on buying the jets.

Talks began in 2012 about the possible purchase of 126 of the planes as part of a US$12-billion deal. But they became bogged down over cost and New Delhi's insistence that 108 of the planes be manufactured in India.

After news of the deal for 36 planes was announced, Parrikar last month played down expectations of a larger deal.

On Monday Parrikar indicated that talks with Le Drian after he arrives on Wednesday would not focus on negotiations for the rest of the planes outlined in 2012.

"He (Le Drian) will visit only for the purpose of working out the modalities and to take the process forward. We will not be directly involved in future talks," Parrikar told PTI.

India has in recent years launched a vast defence modernisation programme worth some US$100 billion, partly to keep up with rival neighbours Pakistan and China.

But contracts for new military hardware have been bogged down in India's frustrating bureaucracy, while some were mired in corruption scandals under the previous Congress-led government.

Parrikar said the Modi government would soon introduce a new policy on defence procurement aimed at providing greater transparency and speeding up decisions.