With the Congress accusing her of trying to tarnish the image of state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Tuesday said HAL was dropped from the Rafale deal negotiations during the UPA government itself as it could not agree with Dassault Aviation on “production terms”.
Sitharaman also indicated that the NDA government would not agree to the Congress’s demand for a Joint Parliamentary Committee probe into the matter.
“The deal did not happen during the UPA time itself. HAL and Dassault could not agree on production terms and, as a result, HAL and Rafale could not go together. Doesn’t that clearly say who did not go together with HAL and under which government it happened? So, to be repeatedly told ‘you have not taken care of HAL’ is misplaced,” said Sitharaman during an interaction with the media at the Indian Women’s Press Corps.
“Is it not obvious that the interest of HAL could have been taken care of even during that time. Neither the interest of HAL nor the interest of the Indian Air Force were taken care of,” she said. “All these attributes that are being put to us about HAL…it’s not for us, but the UPA to answer as to why the agreement between Dassault and HAL did not happen,” she said.
Reacting to former defence minister A K Antony’s charge that the Narendra Modi government compromised national security by reducing the number of jets to 36, Sitharaman said: “He (Antony) has done the negotiations, so he knows how they go. These are not over-the-counter purchases… Orders have to be placed, and then they have to be manufactured. Thus, there is a timeline.”
Sitharaman said the government has already responded to the questions raised by the Opposition, but the Congress was trying to change the goal-post now. She added that although the ideal squadron strength is 42, it was reduced to 33 during the UPA’s time.
Indicating that the government would not agree to a JPC probe, Sitharaman said: “The government has responded to the issues raised by the Congress, including about the price of the basic aircraft, in Parliament. It was our duty to ensure that we get the best price. The price you (UPA) obtained for a basic aircraft when compared with the intergovernmental agreement that we have done, it is 9 per cent cheaper, and this is a fact.”
She said the Congress should go through the replies that were tabled in Parliament. Countering the Congress’s charge that Modi unilaterally announced the purchase of 36 Rafale aircraft, without trying to resolve the issues in the earlier negotiations, Sitharaman said the deal was finalised after a series of discussions between expert teams of both the countries.
Responding to questions on the unprecedented rise in fuel prices, Sitharaman said: “If you break down the price of petrol and diesel, the tax that the Centre gets is fixed. State governments’ taxes on fuel is a certain percentage and changes. The Centre charges only half of what the state imposes. Even a part of what the Centre collects as tax on fuel goes back to the states… It is the states that charge ad valorem tax (in proportion to the petrol price).”
Asked why the BJP-ruled state governments cannot lower taxes on fuel, she replied, “I can’t speak for them.”