Taking the Rafale battle to the doors of HAL, Congress president Rahul Gandhi on Saturday said the Narendra Modi government has "insulted, hurt and destroyed" the future of the public sector company by depriving it of the offset contract with French aircraft manufacturer Dassault.
In an hour-long interaction with about 100 former and present employees of Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) in Bengaluru, he questioned the credibility and experience of the private company that got the Rs 30,000 crore offset contract.
Accusing Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman of "lying" to the nation and misleading the people, Gandhi said she has rushed to Paris to cover up the alleged irregularities in the deal.
"She (Sitharaman) has rushed to France to try to cover it up, but she can't. We will fight this on the streets of India," he said.
Gandhi said firms such as HAL, ISRO, and DRDO are "temples of modern India" which are being "destroyed" by the Modi government that is indulging in corruption.
"A very senior person in the government has raised questions over the 'capacity' of HAL. I ask them as to what is the capacity of Anil Ambani's company that got the contract? The HAL's capabilities are all in front of us. You (HAL) have built HF-24, MiGs, Sukhoi and Tejas. The public sector is the backbone of the country and the defence sector," Gandhi said.
He said it is "completely ridiculous" to say that HAL does not have any experience.
"Does HAL have debt? No. But the person who got the contract has Rs 45,000 crore debt," he added.
"HAL for me is not an ordinary company but a strategic asset to the country. It has a long history and legacy. It is reputed for making the best fighters and helicopters for the Indian Air Force (IAF).
"You are the only company with the requisite experience to build that aircraft (Rafale). You are the people who built Tejas, MiG, Sukhoi. How can anybody say that you are not experienced?" he said.
The Congress president said the "forces" trying to take away the company's "future" are "quite powerful, quite connected" and added that concerted efforts would be needed to save HAL and other public sector companies.
"I have come to give a message that we are going to protect your future. We are going to fight for your rights. Rafale is your right. The decision (to give offset contract) should be done only on merit. Nobody in the world who thinks objectively and takes decisions on merit can take away the offset contract from HAL."
Asked if the Congress would cancel the Rafale deal if it is voted to power in 2019, Gandhi said the question is not what would happen to the deal but as to why the Rs 30,000 crore contract was given to a newly-founded company instead of HAL.
He said when the Congress comes to power at the Centre, its government would ensure that HAL gets more orders to make aircraft.
"We will not allow this government or anyone to destroy HAL or take away orders from it... We will not allow the government to get away with the deal. We will fight it in every street across the country till the truth behind the deal comes out," he said.
Referring to the HAL circular that had directed the employees to keep away from the interaction with him, Gandhi said the management must have been under "pressure" from the government but "we are fighting for you too".
He said the HAL fraternity's hard work of the last 78 years and their patriotism has been "insulted and questioned" by the Modi government.
Replying to questions by reporters on Sitharaman saying that the government of India had no role in deciding the offset partner, the Congress chief said the Defence Minister is "lying".
"The former President of France (Francois Hollande) has said that the government of India told him to give the contract to Ambani. Documentation has also come out that Dassault has said this."
Mirajuddin, a former trade union leader of HAL, said they (the employees) were "agitated" as they felt "let down".
"We were not only surprised but felt insulted. We are not begging. We are demanding that our rights based on merit should be protected," he said.
Senior Congress leaders Mallikarjun Kharge, Ashok Gehlot, former Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, party's state unit chief KC Venugopal and Karnataka Deputy Chief Minister G Parameshwara were also present on the occasion.