Defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman may have backed Attorney General (AG) KK Venugopal’s U-turn to say that the Rafale documents, submitted as part of the review petition before the Supreme Court, were not “stolen” but “photocopies of the original” secret files, but the jibes at the Modi government and ‘chowkidar’ left them squirming with embarrassment.

Now, when the review petition comes up for hearing again on March 14, the Centre may ask Solicitor General (SG) Tushar Mehta to assist the AG, reprted India Legal.

On Friday evening, in an interview to news agency PTI, Venugopal said that the Opposition’s allegation that, while arguing in the Supreme Court on Wednesday, March 6, he had claimed that documents on which the Rafale review petitions placed reliance were part of a file that was “stolen from the defence ministry” was “wholly incorrect”.

“The statement that files have been stolen is wholly incorrect,” Venugopal told PTI.

Soon after Venugopal’s volte-face, Nirmala Sitharaman posted on Twitter: “Learned AG KK Venugopal told @PTI_News the Rafale documents were not stolen from the Defence Ministry & what he meant in his submission before the Supreme Court was that petitioners in the application used “photocopies of the original” papers, deemed secret by the government.”

Sitharaman had kept silent on Venugopal’s stunning claim of the “stolen files” from her ministry since Wednesday even as Opposition leaders and a small section of the media wondered why the defence minister, who had addressed the Parliament last month on the revelations made by The Hindu, based on the supposedly stolen documents, had failed to inform MPs that a “secret” file linked to a sensitive defence deal had gone missing.

On Wednesday, while arguing against the review petitions filed by former union finance minister Yashwant Sinha and others, Venugopal had urged the top court’s bench led by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi that the pleas must be dismissed because they are based on documents from a “stolen” file which was protected under Official Secrets Act.

He had proceeded to submit before the bench that an investigation into the theft of the file had already been ordered and that the government was, in fact, contemplating filing an FIR against The Hindu newspaper and news agency ANI which had first put these documents in the public domain.

Venugopal’s submission had immediately caused a political uproar with Congress president Rahul Gandhi claiming that the new slogan of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government appears to be “gayab ho gaya (gone missing)”.

The claim had also triggered a storm on social media with users posting memes and jokes about the Attorney General’s claim and wondering if Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first Prime Minister who Modi repeatedly blames for everything wrong with the country today, had stolen the files. Some questioned the ability of the ‘nation’s Chowkidar’ (one of the terms Prime Minister Narendra Modi has used for himself. Chowkidar = guard/watchman).

(cartoonist Alok @ caricatured)

(cartoonist Alok @ caricatured)

Sources told India Legal that there is considerable “unease” within the central government over his gaffe. Sources said that the Attorney General, “perhaps because he is getting on in the years (at 88 years of age, Venugopal is the oldest Attorney General of India since independence), needs some assistance to argue the government’s case in such sensitive matters”.

Sources say that the Union law ministry might ask Solicitor General Tushar Mehta “to help” Venugopal in presenting the arguments against the Rafale review petitions when they come up for hearing in the apex court next, on March 14.

The Centre is also wary of the reaction that Venugopal’s clarification may draw from the Supreme Court since his earlier claim of the “stolen” files is well documented in the top court’s proceedings of March 6. The government is aware that adverse remarks by the Supreme Court could bring more embarrassment for Modi over the continuing Rafale controversy at a time when an announcement of the Lok Sabha poll schedule is keenly awaited.