Rafale row: AK Antony claims Centre disgraced HAL, Nirmala Sitharaman says UPA didn't 'take care' of firm

As the controversy over the Rafale fighter jet deal rages on, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Tuesday questioned the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) for not going forward with the deal during their term at the Centre. During an interaction at the Indian Women's Press Corp, the minister also took on Congress leader AK Antony, who had accused her of suppressing facts on the contract with France.

 Rafale row: AK Antony claims Centre disgraced HAL, Nirmala Sitharaman says UPA didnt take care of firm

File image of Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. PTI

Sitharaman hit back, saying that the Congress party was levelling baseless allegations against the government. She also questioned why the Congress had put the Rafale pact on the back burner if it was so sure it had negotiated the best deal with France. "Why did the Congress not go ahead with the deal?" she asked.

Earlier on Tuesday, Antony had accused Sitharaman of trying to tarnish the image of public-sector firm Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), both nationally and internationally, by questioning its credibility. In response, Sitharaman said that the entire controversy around HAL not being chosen happened during the UPA's tenure, and that every question related to HAL should be answered by the UPA.

"UPA could have strengthened HAL. Every question should actually go to them. They didn't take care of HAL," she said. The defence minister added that since HAL and Dassault Aviation, the French firm that manufactures Rafale fighter jets, could not agree on the terms of production, the Congress government dropped it from the agreement.

Sitharaman also said that Antony is a very senior leader, and having been in the ministry before her, he understands the negotiations. She added that the Rafale negotiations were not "over the counter" purchases. "Orders will have to be placed and then will be made. So there is a timeline when purchasing such equipment for defence."

Countering the Congress' claim that they had negotiated a cheaper deal, Sitharaman said that after taking into account all the price escalations, the Narendra Modi government's negotiated price was 9 percent cheaper.

"We have responded saying your basic price and the basic price that I am getting at, when compared with all the escalation and other things, is 9 percent cheaper," she said.

At a press conference earlier in the day, the Congress leader had asked whether the price of the Rafale aircraft were cheaper than that negotiated by the UPA. He had also questioned why the Centre did not buy 126 aircraft, as the Congress said was required, instead of 36 from the French manufacturer.

In response, Sitharaman said that these 126 jets will also have to be bought on order and, therefore, will have a timeline and follow all related conditions like escalation costs.

Antony had said: "The Congress party demands that the Modi government publish the price of the Congress-UPA's deal of 126 aircraft and the price of its 36 Rafale deals, including per aircraft price of the same to clear the doubts of the people of India. Let the nation decide who is correct."

"Recently, the law minister claimed that in the new agreement, the Rafale aircraft is 9 percent cheaper than the UPA's negotiated price. The finance minister said it is 20 percent cheaper. Then an Indian Air Force officer said it is 40 percent cheaper. Why did they not buy more than 126 if it was cheaper?" Antony asked.

Deviating from the Rafale controversy, Sitharaman said that Congress leader Navjot Singh Sidhu's gesture of hugging the Pakistan Army chief had affected soldiers back home. She asserted that the Punjab minister could have "avoided it".

Cricketer-turned politician Sidhu had courted controversy by hugging Pakistan Army Chief of Staff Qamar Javed Bajwa during his visit to Islamabad for Imran Khan's swearing-in as prime minister.

"Sidhu has a lot of admirers... Somebody of that stature going there and then hugging the chief of the army, an army about which in India we have very clear feelings, it certainly has an impact on soldiers... It demoralises people. I wish Sidhu would have avoided it," the defence minister said.

Sitharaman also said that negotiations with Russia on the S-400 missile deal were almost complete. "We'll have to see whether we can sign it before the Russian president's visit. But the negotiations are almost complete," she added.

Russian president Vladimir Putin is scheduled to visit India early in October to hold the annual India-Russia Summit with Modi. During the meet, both sides are likely to deliberate on ways to further strengthen strategic ties.

With inputs from agencies

Updated Date: Sep 18, 2018 18:17:51 IST