New Delhi: Stepping up his attack on the Modi government over the Rafale deal, Congress President Rahul Gandhi on Monday accused it of weakening state-run aerospace major HAL and destroying India’s strategic capability to benefit industrialist Anil Ambani.
Gandhi also hit out at Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, accusing her of “lying” in Parliament and evading his questions on the Rafale fighter jet deal in the Lok Sabha.
The Congress president’s attack came after Sitharaman rejected “doubts” raised by the Congress on her statement on Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) contracts as “incorrect and misleading”.
She said in the Lok Sabha that the government-run defence undertaking has been awarded works worth over Rs 26,000 crore and projects amounting to Rs 73,000 crore are in the pipeline.
The Congress and the BJP-led NDA government have been involved in a war of words after a media report claimed that HAL, grappling with low finances, was forced to borrow Rs 1,000 crore to pay salaries to its employees, for the first time in years.
There was another report that claimed “not a single rupee of the said Rs 1 lakh crore has come to HAL, since not a single order, as claimed, has been signed till now”.
Speaking to reporters outside Parliament, Gandhi alleged that the government gave Rs 20,000 crore to France’s Dassault Aviation, the makers of Rafale jets, even though it has not supplied a single aircraft.
“But why have HAL’s dues of Rs 15,700 crore not been cleared?” Gandhi asked.
He alleged that it was “necessary” for the government to “destroy HAL because with a strong HAL, you simply cannot give the contract to anybody else”.
“So you have to undermine HAL which is what the government is doing. They are saying HAL can’t build anything, but Anil Ambani can. Anil Ambani has never built an aircraft in his life, HAL has built multiple different types of aircraft.”
“The strategy of the government is — weaken HAL, do not give it money, destroy India’s strategic capability and give the ‘gift’ to Anil Ambani. That is the plan and that is what we are trying to thwart,” Gandhi asserted.
The government as well as Ambani have rejected all such allegations.
Asserting that the Congress is protecting HAL, Gandhi alleged, “We are not going to allow Rs 30,000 crore of people’s money to be taken by Anil Ambani because he is Narendra Modi’s friend.” The Congress chief also challenged Modi to face him in a debate for 15 minutes on the Rafale issue, saying the truth will come out.
“He will not come because the chowkidar (watchman) has facilitated theft,” Gandhi said.
The Congress has been targeting the government, alleging that it denied HAL an offset contract under the Rafale fighter jets deal with France, a charge the government has denied.
On the other hand, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has accused the Congress of not supporting HAL during its rule and asserted that the government is now strengthening the defence public sector undertaking.
Accusing Sitharaman of “lying” in Parliament, Gandhi said the defence minister had stated that the government gave Rs 1 lakh crore to HAL. “We challenged that and in today’s statement she said that Rs 26,570 crore have been given to HAL. This means that Nirmala Sitharaman ji lied in Parliament,” he said.
Gandhi also said Sitharaman’s claim of projects for HAL amounting to Rs 73,000 crore being in the pipeline was “bogus”.
“I ask Narendra Modi ji and Nirmala Sitharaman ji that when the PM had done a bypass surgery and prepared a new contract of 36 aircraft, did the senior defence ministry and Air Force officials object to Narendra Modi’s interference. Yes or No?” Gandhi asked.
The Congress president said Sitharaman “gave a long story” when he posed the question in Parliament, but did not answer the query.
Taking a swipe at Sitharaman, Gandhi said she should not be called defence minister, but Narendra Modi’s spokesperson.
“She gave a two-and-a-half hour speech but she did not give a yes/no answer to my questions. She did not tell us that on what basis Anil Ambani was given Rs 30,000 crore,” Gandhi said.
Attacking Prime Minister Modi, Gandhi said: “The country’s chowkidaar cannot come to Lok Sabha. He is afraid to come to Lok Sabha.”
Earlier, Gandhi alleged that the “best” engineers and scientists from cash-strapped HAL will be forced to move to the Anil Ambani group that has the Rafale fighter jet contract.
This will happen as HAL does not have enough money to pay salaries to its employees and Ambani needs its talent to deliver on his contract, Gandhi said.
“That HAL doesn’t have enough cash to pay salaries isn’t surprising. Anil Ambani has Rafale. He now needs HAL’s brilliant talent pool to deliver on his contracts. Without salaries, HAL’s best engineers and scientists will be forced to move to AA’s venture,” he said on Twitter.