Congress president Rahul Gandhi on Thursday called for Nirmala Sitharaman’s resignation as defence minister, saying her position had become “untenable” after a former chief of Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd “nailed her lie” on the Rafale deal.
Sitharaman had said the negotiations to procure 126 Rafale jets during UPA rule had fallen through as the public-sector HAL lacked the “required capability” to assemble the jets in India in collaboration with French manufacturer Dassault Aviation.
But former HAL chief T. Suvarana Raju has now been quoted by Hindustan Times as saying in an interview: “HAL could have built Rafale fighters in India had the government managed to close the original negotiations with Dassault.”
Rahul tweeted: “The RM (Rafale Minister) tasked with defending corruption has been caught lying again. The former HAL chief, T.S. Raju, has nailed her lie, that HAL didn’t have the capability to build the Rafale. Her position is untenable & she must resign.”
Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari too mounted pressure on Sitharaman, telling a news conference: “The ex-HAL chief completely and absolutely demolished the web of lies the government was trying to weave to mislead the people. Sitharaman has lost the moral right to stay in the office for a minute.”
Of the 126 jets the UPA was negotiating, 108 were to be assembled in India by HAL. Under the current agreement, India is to buy 36 Rafale jets with the offset contract going to an Anil Ambani company --- a development the Opposition has painted as crony capitalism.
Against this background, Sitharaman had alleged it was the UPA that had failed to support HAL during talks with Dassault. “The state-run firm was dropped from the Rafale deal by the UPA government itself,” she had said.
Raju, who headed HAL till September 1 this year, has demanded that the government place all the relevant files in the public domain.
“When HAL can build a 25-tonne Sukhoi-30, a fourth-generation fighter jet that forms the mainstay of the air force, from raw material stage, then what are we talking about? We could have definitely done it (assemble the Rafale jets),” Raju said.
He said HAL and Dassault had signed a work-share agreement. Dassault’s Eric Trappier had confirmed this on March 25, 2015, saying: “The deal to purchase 126 Rafales is now 95 per cent completed. Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd would be the local co-contractor for assembling the Rafale.”
Raju said HAL had maintained the Mirage-2000 aircraft, manufactured by Dassault, for the past 20 years and been involved in its upgrade.
“We would have delivered on the Rafale too. I was the leader of the technical team for five years and everything had been sorted out,” he said.
Asked whether the Indian-assembled Rafale wouldn’t have cost more — one of the reported reasons the UPA failed to conclude the negotiations — Raju said making military platforms in India was always a strategic decision: it was not about the immediate cost.
“You have to see the life-cycle costs and not the cost per piece of a fighter. Life-cycle costs would have definitely been cheaper. And ultimately it’s about self-reliance,” he said.
Raju said that HAL would have been happy to give a guarantee for the aircraft it produced.
“Dassault and HAL had signed the mutual work-share contract and given it to the government. Why don’t you ask the government to put the files out in public? The files will tell you everything.”
Former defence minister A.K. Antony too had said on Tuesday: “Sitharaman claims the UPA deal collapsed as HAL did not have the capability to produce 108 aircraft in India. This is completely false.”He had added that HAL “has a standing of 75 years and is the only aerospace manufacturing company that can indigenously manufacture fighter aircraft in India”.
“It has manufactured 4,060 aircraft of 31 types: licensed aircraft, UAVs, helicopters that are supplied to 20 countries,” he had said, providing a long list of such aircraft.
Antony went on: “Sitharaman says that the then UPA government could have come forward and pumped in resources into HAL but did not. This is absolutely untrue. During Congress-UPA (rule), HAL was a profit-making company with ample cash reserves…. In fact, it is the first time in history that under Modi government, HAL had to take a loan of Rs 1,000 crore from various banks to sustain its finances.”
Tewari said the government had woven a web of lies to defend its decision to discard HAL for a private-sector company, which was awarded the offset contract by Dassault.
“It is not only surprising that the minister (Sitharaman) trashed a PSU in this cavalier manner; the ex-HAL chief has demolished the entire case built by her,” he said.
“He (Raju) said, ‘India would have become self-reliant had HAL got the technology and built Rafale’. What happened to Modi’s Make-in-India? If the defence minister has the courage of conviction, let the entire Rafale files be placed before the public.”