Against the backdrop of objections by some MPs, Civil Aviation Minister Ajit Singh on Tuesday strongly defended the Rs 2,058 crore (Rs 20.58 billion) Jet-Etihad deal, saying those opposing it were "long on politics and short on facts".
"It is such an important deal..., the first big deal in Civil Aviation Ministry. In terms of FDI, it is bigger than any other deal this year. There are so many dimensions to it.
Those opposing the deal are long on politics and short on facts," Singh said.
The objections to the deal were first raised by a Parliamentary Standing Committee headed by CPI(M) MP Sitaram Yechury, which was followed up by senior MPs, Jaswant Singh and Dinesh Trivedi, and Janata Party chief Subramanian Swamy, who shot off letters to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
The Prime Minister had then referred these concerns in a communication to the various Ministries, including Civil Aviation, Commerce and Finance. Replying to a volley of questions on the objections raised by the MPs and the parliamentary panel, he said, "It is good that the Prime Minister wants the Cabinet to discuss it."
Asked whether his Ministry could oppose the deal, he said, "There is no question in that." "The issue is, it's a political thing. Basically elections are coming. They have been attacking day in and day out, this minister and that minister. But I wished that they had checked their facts," Singh said.
External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid has said that the deal was being examined. "The FIPB has to approve any such deal and sometimes they ask for clarifications. I don't think any deal has halted. It is being examined as normally any deal has to be examined."
Countering the charge of a virtual sellout made by the MPs, Singh referred to the bilateral air services agreement with the UAE in 2007-08 in which both sides agreed to enhance air traffic rights for flying 29,000 seats from 18,000 and later another additional 29,000 seats.
"We gave them additional cities (in India) when Indian carriers were using much less. Swamy was around then. Jaswant Singh was around then, Yechury too was around ...(Jaswant) Singh has a problem. But we are following the same rules that existed when he was the Defence Minister," he said.
Regarding the bilateral air traffic accord between India and Abu Dhabi, Singh said while Indian carriers asked for additional 55,000 seats, Abu Dhabi had sought 45,000 seats.
"We have given them 36,000 seats. Not only that, they have provided gauge change facility which earlier Emirates and Qatar had refused to give us," he said, justifying the accord signed just after the Jet-Etihad deal earlier this year.
In aviation parlance, change of gauge for passenger or cargo transport means a change of aircraft without the change of flight number. The term is an analogy taken from rail transport. It would mean that an Indian airline can go to Abu Dhabi, change aircraft and take passengers to other international destinations from there.
Observing that his Ministry had sought and received clarifications on certain issues concerning the deal, Singh said Jet would have to satisfy FIPB, SEBI and the Competition Commission and "then come to Cabinet Committee on Investment. They have to satisfy all these regulatory bodies first".
He said the Ministries concerned wanted "to improve a few things in the Cabinet note", but refused to elaborate. The comments by Singh and Khurshid came on a day when Cabinet Secretary A K Seth held a meeting with Secretaries of the ministries concerned on the issue.
Referring to objections of Swamy and two MPs on the sale of Jet's slots at London's Heathrow airport to Etihad, Singh said the government had nothing to do with it as the slots belong to the airports concerned which sell them to various airlines.
Maintaining that the deal was still going through the regulatory process, Singh said, "We too have raised the same concerns. There are rules about control, place of business... We haven't given them anything yet.
"It is just going through the regulatory process. After they follow all the rules and regulations, and the concerns are addressed, FIPB will only give them clearance. Why are you people so agitated? Why are these politicians so agitated."
Abu Dhabi's national carrier Etihad had, on April 24, announced that it would purchase 24 per cent stake in Jet for Rs 2,058 crore, a premium of more than 20 per cent over the prevailing market price of Jet shares.
The Foreign Investment Promotion Board (FIPB), which clears FDI proposals, had on June 13 deferred a decision on the deal, saying it required more clarity on control and ownership structure of Jet Airways. Jet chairman Naresh Goyal owns a 51 per cent stake in the airline.
"It (Jet-Etihad proposal) has been deferred. We need more details on effective control and ownership," Economic Affairs Secretary Arvind Mayaram had then said. Besides FIPB, capital market regulator SEBI, fair trade watchdog Competition Commission and Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion have also raised certain queries.
The deal is the largest foreign investment proposal in the aviation sector. The FDI policy for civil aviation, which was revised in September last year, allows foreign airlines and foreign institutional investors to invest up to 49 per cent in an Indian airline. NRIs are already allowed 100 per cent investment.
In April, the deal was being seen as a sign of India's attractiveness as an investment destination despite issues like rising inflation and current account deficit. But it was criticised by the Standing Committee on Transport, Tourism and Culture led by Yechury, which had recommended that the bilateral agreement with Abu Dhabi "be reconsidered by the government to protect our national carrier and the airports of India".
"The committee feels that the huge premium could be a backhanded way of obtaining access to the huge civil aviation market in India," its report had said.