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Congress president Rahul Gandhi on Thursday, September 20, attacked defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman, demanding her resignation for ‘lying’ about HAL’s capability to build Rafale aircraft in collaboration with Dassault.

The attack came after the former boss of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited T Suvarna Raju told Hindustan Times (HT) that the state-run plane maker could have built Rafale fighters in India if the government had closed the original negotiations with Dassault and signed a work-share contract with the French company.

“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 (licence produced the Rafale jets),” Raju, who retired on September 1, said, according to the HT report.

He questioned why the Union government was not putting out the files in public. “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,” he said.

He admitted that HAL may not have been able to build the planes at the desired “cost-per-piece”, one of the reasons why that deal fell through, but insisted that the company has the ability to make advanced fighters.

“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. There is a learning curve. If the French are making 100 jets in say 100 hours, I will take 200 hours as I am doing it for the first time. I can’t do it in 80 hours. It’s a scientific process,” he said.

After the HT report, Rahul Gandhi launched a fresh attack on Modi government. Referring to Sitharaman as “RM (Rafale Minister)”, he tweeted to say that former HAL chief, TS Raju, had “nailed” her “lie” and her position had become “untenable”.

“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,” he said.

The Congress has alleged that the government caused loss of over Rs. 41,000 crore to the exchequer and endangered national security by bypassing the state-run HAL in favour of “some businessman friends” for the offset contract in the Rafale deal.

Under India’s offset policy, foreign defence entities are mandated to spend at least 30 per cent of the total contract value in India through procurement of components or setting up of research and development facilities.

On Tuesday, defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman said HAL was “dropped” from the deal when the UPA was in power, because it couldn’t agree on terms of production with Dassault. She told news agency PTI that it was former defence minister AK Antony’s unprecedented intervention that led to the deal being cancelled after the price negotiation committee had almost finalised the deal.

The minister also said that HAL lost out on the chance to build the warplanes because of the UPA regime. She accused Antony of not supporting Hindustan Aeronautics Limited in getting the Rafale deal.

Former defence minister AK Antony denied the charge as false and accused the minister of suppressing facts.

Air Chief Marshal AY Tipnis, a former IAF chief, said building Rafales in India would have been a challenging task for the HAL though not impossible with transfer of manufacturing technology from France. “The fact is HAL has not performed to the level it could have. It promises more than it can deliver and quality of work has been substandard in many cases. It has also backtracked on its promises.”

The NDA government’s decision to enter into a government-to-government deal with France to buy 36 Rafale warplanes was announced in April 2015 with the deal signed a little over a year later. This replaced the UPA regime’s decision to buy 126 Rafale aircraft, 108 of which were to be made in India by HAL using parts imported from France.

The Rafale deal has become controversial with the opposition, led by the Congress, claiming that the price at which India is buying Rafale aircraft now is Rs 1,670 crore for each, three times the Rs 526 crore, the initial bid by the company when the UPA was trying to buy the aircraft. It has also claimed the previous deal included a technology transfer agreement with HAL.

The deal has also become controversial on account of the fact that one of the offset deals signed by Dassault is with the Reliance Group of Anil Ambani. The Congress claims the earlier deal was scrapped and a new one signed just to provide Ambani this opportunity for an offset deal. Both the government and Reliance have repeatedly denied this.

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