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Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman at the special screening of 'Chalo Jeete Hein' Tamil version of a short film on Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Chennai on Saturday, Jan, 05, 2019. Image Credit: Supplied

New Delhi: Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Monday hit back at Congress president Rahul Gandhi for raising doubt over contracts given to state-run defence equipment manufacturer Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), and asked him to “apologise for misleading the nation”.

Sitharaman reiterated in Parliament her earlier statement that orders worth Rs1 trillion (Dh52.85 billion) were given to HAL for manufacturing several defence equipment.

“I have received confirmation from HAL that between 2014 and 2018, contracts amounting to Rs265.7 billion have already been signed. Besides, orders worth Rs730 billion were in the pipeline. This confirms the correctness of my statements and the doubts that have been raised on my statement on HAL contracts are incorrect and misleading,” she said.

Gandhi had asked her to clarify or resign after a media report suggested that no orders had been placed with HAL in the recent years and the “cash-strapped” company was struggling to pay salaries to its employees.

Reacting to Sitharaman’s statement on Monday, Gandhi said the minister was misleading the Parliament with a “direct jhooth [lie].”

“The actual money that HAL was expecting was only Rs265.7 billion. The rest about orders worth Rs730 billion is ‘bakwas’ [nonsense]. The Technical Evaluation Committee report does not mean an order,” Gandhi told media.

He said that while Dassault Aviation, French manufacturer of Rafale fighter jets, had been given Rs200 billion by the government, HAL had not been paid dues worth Rs157 billion.

“That HAL doesn’t have enough cash to pay salaries is not surprising. Anil Ambani-led Reliance Defence Limited has Rafale contract. He now needs HAL’s brilliant talent pool to deliver on his contracts. Without salaries, HAL’s best engineers and scientists will be forced to move to Anil Ambani’s venture,” the Congress chief tweeted.

Gandhi said that in her eagerness to defend the Rafale deal signed by Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi, the Defence Minister was spinning lies.

“When you tell one lie, you need to keep spinning out more lies, to cover up the first one,” he said.

Meanwhile, Congress’s spokesperson Randeep Surjewala also slammed Modi and Sitharaman alleging that HAL was forced to take a loan of Rs10 billion to pay salaries.

“The lying Defence Minister’s lies get exposed. The Defence Minister claimed that procurement orders worth [Rs1 trillion] were provided to HAL but HAL says that not a single paisa has come, as not a single order has been signed,” he tweeted.

Earlier, Sitharaman had rebutted Gandhi’s claims that the government signed an over-priced deal with Dassault. She said that the re-negotiated deal was better than the one negotiated by Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government as it included a superior logistical support, which had been absent in the previous one.

The delivery of Rafale jets is scheduled to begin from September, 2019.

What is the Rafale deal controversy?

Rafale deal controversy relates to the purchase of 36 multi-role fighter aircraft by Indian Defence Ministry from France’s Dassault Aviation. During an official visit to France in April 2015, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi announced that India would acquire 36 fully built Rafale jets citing “critical operational necessity”.

In September 2016, India and France signed an inter-governmental agreement (IGA) for acquisition of 36 aircraft at a cost of Rs58,000 crore.

In November 2016, however, a political warfare over the deal began with Congress accusing the government of causing “insurmountable loss” of taxpayers’ money by signing the deal.

It claimed that the Anil Ambani-led Reliance Defence Limited had been unfairly picked to be French firm’s Indian partner. Congress also alleged that the cost of each aircraft is three times more than what the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government had negotiated with France in 2012.