HAL was excluded from the Rafale deal under the UPA government as it could not agree to production terms with Dassault Aviation: Sitharaman. Narendra Modi-led NDA government was getting the Rafale fighter jets at a rate nine per cent cheaper than what the UPA dispensation had agreed upon: Defence minister

NEW DELHI: Defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Tuesday blamed the Congress-led UPA government for the exclusion of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) from the Rafale deal and said it was under the previous government that the public sector firm could not agree on the production terms with Dassault Aviation.

Responding to the charges levelled by senior Congress leader AK Antony + on tarnishing the image of HAL, Sitharaman said "Deal didn't happen during UPA. What also didn't happen during UPA was that between HAL and Dassault they couldn't agree on production terms. So HAL and Dassault Aviation couldn't go together. Doesn't that very clearly say who didn't go together with HAL, under which govt did that happen?".

Earlier today, Congress leader and former defence minister AK Antony lambasted Sitharaman on her claim that state-run HAL did not have the required capability to produce the jets in India. Antony accused Sitharaman of "tarnishing the image of HAL, which is the only company that can manufacture the fighter aircraft in India".

"We don't know what her intentions were in ridiculing a public sector undertaking under her own ministry," said Antony.

The defence minister reiterated that the Narendra Modi-led NDA government was getting the Rafale fighter jets at a rate nine per cent cheaper than what the UPA dispensation had agreed upon.

Responding to questions on the Congress's allegations, the minister said, "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 per cent cheaper," she said.

Commenting on the continuous attack by the Congress on the number of aircraft ordered, the defence minister said that the number was fixed after a careful assessment.

"The ideal squadron strength is 42, it has been coming down. So, when the Prime Minister Narendra Modi assessed the situation, (we figured) it was our duty to get the Rafale," said the defence minister.

Earlier in the day Antony had said that only the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) could decide on the number of aircraft and weaponry required, adding that Modi's announcement in 2015 to procure only 36 jets was a "grave violation" of the Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP).

Reacting to the controversy over Congress leader Navjot Singh Sidhu's visit to Pakistan, Sitharaman re-iterated her stance and said "Sidhu should have avoided hugging the Pak army chief."

"It certainly has impact on soldiers and the people in the ministry. Public response has been similar that it demoralises. If it demoralises people I wished Sidhu would have avoided. I'm not talking about going, but that single gesture of hugging the chief of Pakistan army," Sitharaman said.

Sitharaman further said that the defence missile system deal with Russia is almost final. "We have almost finalised the S-400 deal with Russia. Cannot comment if it will be signed during the Putin visit," said Sitharaman.

On BJP's prospect in upcoming Lok Sabha elections, she said: "It will be a good fight, we are coming back to power."