- Rahul Gandhi said the government was doubting HAL's capabilities
- He said that establishments like HAL are temples of modern India
- He met them outside the HAL corporate headquarters in Bengaluru
Rahul Gandhi has apologised to the employees of the state-run defence company Hindustan Aeronautics Limited or HAL "on the government's behalf" for doubting their capabilities. The Congress chief, who met employee representatives in Bengaluru on Saturday to talk about the controversial Rafale fighter jets deal, said that establishments like HAL are the temples of modern India, but they are being attacked and destroyed.
"If somebody thinks they can build their future on top of your graves, that is not going to be allowed," Mr Gandhi said outside the HAL corporate headquarters in the Garden City.
Rahul Gandhi opened the meeting by saying he had come to listen. And a lot was said.
The first speaker was a former employee, Sirajuddin, who lamented, "We felt let down. You are killing us. You are killing HAL and the employees."
Babu T Raghav, another former employee, said the 32,000 employees of the HAL are feeling hurt. "To keep a prosthetic limb alive, you can't kill a living organ."
The Congress has been alleging massive corruption in the $8.6 billion deal with France for 36 ready-to-fly Rafale jets. The party chief has accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi of ignoring the HAL, which has the Sukhoi, Chetak and Tejas among others to its credit, to benefit Anil Ambani's debt-ridden Reliance Defence, which became the offset partner of Dassault, the French giant that manufactures the Rafale fighter jet.
The HAL has traditionally been manufacturing aircraft for the defence forces. The Congress chief said there was a need to "defend the dignity of India's defenders" as he accused the government of "snatching" the Rafale offset contract from HAL.
He pointed out how someone senior in the government said that the HAL doesn't have the capability or capacity to manufacture the fighter jets.
"So what about the capabilities of the person who has got the contract? You have spent over 70 years in building your capabilities. You have got experience. I understand that you are pained. It's natural for you to feel emotionally upset... to feel insulted. I apologise to you on the government's behalf even though i have nothing to do with it. I want to stand with you in your discomfort," the Congress president said.
He thanked their (HAL) role in ensuring that India feels safe and comfortable. "When Barack Obama said India and China are the only countries in the world that can challenge the US in this field, he said it because of you," he reassured.
Mr Gandhi promised that the Congress will fight for their rights. "The Rafale contract is your right," he said.
BJP leader Shoba Karandlaje dismissed the event and asked "in what capacity did he call this meeting? He is not the defence minister".
Responding to reports that the HAL employees had been asked not to attend the event, senior Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge said, "There is no restriction on HAL employees meeting politicians. It's our job to encourage such public sector units."
The government's statement that the HAL couldn't manufacture Rafale is demotivating, he said. "It will ruin the reputation of HAL in international market. The government itself is damaging the image of its own company in favour of Reliance Defence," Mr Kharge said.
The acquisition of Rafale fighter jets for the Indian Air Force has been one of the most controversial defence deals ever signed by India.
In 2016, India signed the deal with France for 36 Rafale jets after the erstwhile Congress government's negotiations were scrapped. The UPA government had planned to buy 18 off-the-shelf jets from Dassault and 108 were to be assembled by the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), the state-run defence manufacturer, in Bengaluru.
According to the new deal, India is buying 36 ready-to-fly Rafale jets.
The man who came to remove corruption has himself given Rs 30,000 crore to Anil Ambani, Mr Gandhi has been alleging.
The government has rubbished Mr Gandhi's claim saying nothing else could be expected from a leader whose "entire family" is buried in scams.