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Rahul Gandhi steps up Rafale attack, says India indebted to HAL

Rahul Gandhi met employees of the HAL at Bengaluru and called HAL a strategic asset to which India is indebted.

india Updated: Oct 14, 2018 00:10 IST
Vikram Gopal
Vikram Gopal
Hindustan Times, Bengaluru
rahul gandhi,rahul gandhi HAL,rahul gandhi meets HAL workers
Congress president Rahul Gandhi interacting with HAL workers at Minsk square in Bengaluru on Saturday.(Arijit Sen/HT Photo)

Congress president Rahul Gandhi reached out on Saturday to employees of Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), seeking to co-opt them in his campaign against the Rafale jet fighter deal signed by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government.

Taking part in a discussion with former and current employees of HAL, Gandhi said the state-run military planemaker was a strategic asset and India owed it a great deal for protecting the country.

“When (former US President Barack) Obama says the only countries that can challenge the USA are India and China, that’s because of your contribution,” Gandhi said, standing in front of a model of the Light Combat Aircraft built by HAL, opposite the company’s corporate office near Cubbon Park in Bengaluru.

At the session, former employees and trade union leaders of the public sector unit said they felt insulted that a private company had been chosen as an offset partner of Dassault Aviation, bypassing HAL’s claim.

The NDA government’s decision to enter an $8.7 billion government-to-government deal with France to buy 36 Rafale warplanes made by Dassault was announced in April 2015, with an agreement signed a little over a year later. This replaced the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime’s decision to buy 126 Rafale aircraft, 108 of which were to be made in India by HAL.

The 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 NDA has not disclosed details of the price, but the UPA deal, struck in 2012, was not a viable one, former defence minister Manohar Parrikar has previously said, implying that it would have never been closed and that, therefore, any comparison is moot.

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 Group have repeatedly denied this.

At the session with Gandhi, a former HAL employee and union leader identified as Sirajuddin said he felt insulted and let down that a company with 78 years of experience in manufacturing aircraft was kept out.

“We were hurt and I don’t understand why the deal was taken away from us. What we want from influential leaders is that you should please protect our honour,” he said. “We are not begging and we are capable of manufacturing Rafale in India,” he said.

The decision to invite Gandhi for the event has come under criticism. The HAL employees’ union had decided not to support the event and the company had issued a directive asking current employees to give the discussion a miss.

Explaining the decision to invite Gandhi, Anant Padmanabhan, also a member of the HAL union, said it was clear that nobody would listen to HAL employees unless a leader like Gandhi was invited. “The Opposition and ruling party are both responsible for running the country...it is my duty to approach a proper person who is capable of defending and giving us strength to defend HAL and the public sector,” he said.

Bringing the event to a close, Gandhi said a couple of points raised at the discussion had struck a chord with him.

“One, these (public sector units) are the temples of modern India and they are being destroyed and we cannot allow that. Second, you have worked for 70 years. If somebody thinks they can build their future on your graves, that won’t be allowed either,” he said.

“I can see HAL’s capabilities here, I can see 78 years of your work… You have a history. And I understand that you are pained and hurt,” he said.

First Published: Oct 13, 2018 16:26 IST