Rafale row: Caught in a chimera of political ambitions, Rahul Gandhi’s hosanna on HAL ignores UPA’s damning report on PSU

In a recent blog on Rafale controversy, Arun Jaitley had criticised Rahul Gandhi for being economical with the truth. The Union finance minister called his strategy “simple”, which is to “concoct a lie and repeat it as many times”. Jaitley pointed out that Rahul had not answered his questions on the issue and posited that “in mature democracies those who rely on falsehood are considered unfit for public life.”

Rahul obviously hasn’t paid any attention to Jaitley’s criticism. The Congress president evidently believes that it is not his sacred duty to uphold the sanctity of political discourse. He perhaps detects in Jaitley’s reaction a touch of panic in failing to counter his narrative. Congress’ in-house ‘data scientists’ may have told him that ‘Rafale fire’ is catching on. Rahul sees an opportunity here and has widened the ambit of his disruptive politics to Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) — the PSU at the centre of Rafale row — to seal his ‘advantage’.

File image of Congress president Rahul Gandhi. PTI

File image of Congress president Rahul Gandhi. PTI

Put in this context, Rahul’s gaslighting on HAL and his Saturday afternoon tamasha at Minsk Square in Bengaluru near the HAL headquarters becomes easier to understand. However, a larger question needs to be asked here. At what point, exactly, do we stop ignoring or justifying his falsehoods as ‘political ploy’ and demand some accountability from the dynast? This question assumes importance because Rahul has by and large escaped media scrutiny despite spreading relentless canards on Rafale. He enjoys a license denied to his peers.

There is no dearth of media attempts to fact-check prime minister’s speeches, as it should be in a democracy. (See here  or here). Rahul is Congress president and the ‘PM-designate’. He is angling for the post and hopes to succeed Modi in 2019. He and his words deserve to be taken in all seriousness.

We, therefore, note with worry Rahul’s callous disregard for facts during the “interaction” with a few current and retired HAL employees, his unstinting faith in a bloated socialist state and his mischievous attempts to sow seeds of discord within the PSU. What makes Rahul’s position even more untenable is that he isn’t heading an untested outfit but India’s oldest political party that has been in power for six decades since Independence and is chiefly responsible for the predicament of our public institutions.

Rahul described HAL as a “strategic asset in aerospace”, claimed that work done by it for the country was “tremendous”, and added that “the country owed debt to it for ‘protecting us’ and creating a scientific vision (whatever that means)”. The Gandhi scion also promised HAL employees (a few had turned up defying an official memo along with some retired workers) that “when we come to power, we will do it more aggressively.” By “it” he meant making HAL “more effective”, perhaps because Congress had never got the chance earlier to do so.

Among other things, Rahul said: “A senior government official claimed that HAL does not have the capacity to build Rafale Jets. I want to ask, what about the person who got the contract? What sort of experience does Anil Ambani have? If somebody thinks that they will build their future on your (HAL) graveyard, I will not allow it. I will stand with you all.”

Never one to hold back on rhetoric, the Congress president ranked HAL among “temples of modern India” which he claimed “are being attacked and destroyed” and thundered that “we cannot allow it to be done.” Addressing the workers, he said: “Rafale is your right.”

Soon after Rahul’s “interaction”, HAL released a statement to the media denouncing the “politicization” of its employees. It pointed out that NDA government has extended “full-fledged support (to HAL), having placed supply orders of over Rs 27,340 crore during the 2014-18 period by recognising its premier position.”

HAL’s statement added that “towards improvement and upgradation of infrastructure, including ramping up of production facilities, funding to the tune of Rs 7,800 crore was sanctioned during the period… Today’s attempt at politicisation of the employees is a fad and regrettable development and will be detrimental to the interest of the organisation, its employees as well as national security.”

Before we delve into Rahul’s other inaccuracies, distortions and practical jokes that he sprang on us on Saturday, let us be clear on one aspect. HAL was never in contention to “produce Rafale”. Not in UPA’s time, not now. Amid all obfuscations scripted by the Congress, the fact remains that UPA never signed the deal with Dassault on Rafale. There was no deal on the table. UPA prevaricated, stalled, sat on negotiations and in February 2014, shortly before being voted out of office, then defence minister AK Antony had admitted that financial condition of the government was not good and “there is no money for this (deal).”

As far as the deal scripted by NDA is concerned, the agreement is simple. Dassault and Dassault alone will produce the fighter jets and India will take shipment of two squadrons of 36 fighter aircraft in ‘fly-away’ condition. Anil Ambani’s Reliance ADAG has entered into a joint venture with Dassault and DRAL (the JV) will serve only 10 percent of the total offset liability of Dassault. The French manufacturer is on talks with “hundred Indian companies” to meet its offset obligations.

So, as Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies fellow Abhijit Iyer-Mitra points out, “The final negotiated contract is for offsets of industrial defence goods, not an agreement to co-produce planes, which is HAL’s only competence (sic). The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) reportedly gets Rs 9,000 crore worth of offset work from Dassault, while Reliance is simply the biggest, not only, beneficiary of the remaining Rs 21,000 crore.” (See Sandeep Unnithan’s piece in India Today here for a complete break-up of the offset contract piece.

This nails Rahul’s falsehood about HAL being “denied” the chance to “build Rafale” by Reliance. As for why Reliance and not HAL, it has been repeatedly pointed out by the Indian government, French government and Dassault that the decision to choose Reliance as a JV partner for dealing a portion of offset contracts was Dassault’s alone.

The key question is, why did Dassault tie-up with Reliance ADAG instead of HAL to form a JV that will deal with offset obligations. We get a hint from Dassault CEO Eric Trappier’s comments when AFP asked him the question. He replied: “Dassault Aviation decided to establish a long-term presence in India through DRAL, a joint enterprise in which governance is provided by an Indian Chief Executive Officer and a French Chief Operating Officer. Dassault Aviation therefore exercises technical and industrial control over the operations, applying its standards and its flexibility.”

In other words, Dassault tied up with a private firm instead of HAL because it will be easier for it to “exercise technical and industrial control over the operations, applying its standards and its flexibility” which may not be possible in case of state-run HAL which is notorious for cost-overruns, poor quality control, slack work culture and lack of accountability — in short, all symptoms of a government monopoly.

This is as far as the French can go. But let’s assume that Dassault chief is bluffing, and Rahul is speaking the truth about HAL being a “strategic asset”. It is worth taking a look at the track record of India’s premier state-run aerospace company.

London-based Financial Times had reported in 2011 quoting a leaked cable from Timothy Roemer, US ambassador to Delhi, that “the potential for HAL to successfully partner with US firms on a truly advanced aircraft remains untested and suspect”, when Boeing and Lockheed Martin were in contention to supply New Delhi with 126 fighter jets. Leaked by Wikileaks, the cable quoted Roemer, who had just visited HAL’s Bangalore plant in February 2010, as saying, that India’s aviation industry is “two to three decades behind the United States and other western nations”.

In 2015, US aviation major Boeing severed a contract with HAL for component supplies after giving the state-run company “repeated reminders” on its “poor quality” of production. As the Financial Express report points out, “Boeing has over the last few years shifted its component sourcing requirements in India to private companies — Tata Group, Dynamatic Technologies, Rossell Techsys and others.” Strategic asset indeed.

HAL, which still enjoys a monopoly which entities like BSNL or MTNL did before the telecom sector was opened up, has repeatedly failed to meet deadlines much to IAF’s annoyance. It failed to produce the indigenous light combat aircraft (LCA) Tejas on time and “delivered only six of these supersonic jets to the IAF, missing its target of supplying 20 aircraft by the end of the year’s first quarter”, according to a report in Hindustan Times. The report quoted a source as saying “We are not getting as many jets as we would like. By now the first Tejas squadron should have inducted 20 planes.”

Similar delays have been witnessed in HAL’s rolling out of Sukhoi which is running at least three years behind schedule, according to a report in Indian Express. It says HAL’s scheduled delivery of the last of a set of 140 Russian-origin fighters by March 2017 has now been pushed to March 2020. HAL was contracted to produce 140, is yet to produce 33 and apparently the PSU “has directly procured some aircraft from Russia and delivered them to the IAF to bridge the gap.” It is not known whether Rahul Gandhi is aware of, or cares for these facts.

Even when HAL has produced what it is mandated to do, questions have been raised on its production quality. In 2015, for instance, a Hawk advanced jet trainer went down in Odisha and focus shifted to HAL’s manufacturing of the engine. As Times of India points out in a report, “HAL is tasked with manufacturing 99 of the 123 Hawks ordered from BAE Systems, with transfer of technology, in the overall AJT project already worth well over Rs 16,000 crore till now. But the entire endeavor has been marred by politico-bureaucratic apathy, poor long-term planning, flawed multiple contracts and delayed delivery schedules.”

So why is HAL is in such a mess? As defence analyst Dinesh Kumar writes in Sunday Guardian, “HAL’s record has been one of long delays, unkept promises and enormous costs. It has been a story of so much effort, so little delivery and hardly any accountability, and that too at the cost of compromising, if not altogether endangering, the airpower dimension of national security.”

Its delays in delivery, poor quality control and resultant flaws in products have hampered IAF’s operational capability and forced it to continue operating antiquated equipment that should have been grounded. This inevitably results in frequent crashes. HAL has over the years faced some serious allegations such as alleged fitting of second-hand engines in Sukhois. A 2017 report in Deccan Chronicle points out that “fitment of Cat 2 (category B) or secondhand engines into brand new Sukhoi 30 MKIs was done at HAL facility at Nashik “without the knowledge and approval of the defence ministry.”

Was Rahul unaware of the truth about HAL? Writing in Firstpost, Yatish Yadav refers to the minutes of a meeting pertaining to the visit of then minister of state for defence Jitendra Singh to HAL’s Sukhoi engine division at Koraput in May 2013 when UPA was negotiating with France to purchase 126 Rafale fighter jets. According to the confidential UPA report, HAL’s Koraput unit could produce only four of 34 engines before 31 March, 2013, because of “Insufficient number of production lines, inadequate floor space and lack of a skilled/trained workforce at HAL (Koraput)…” The report goes on to say “there is also a shortage of adequate hangar space to keep engines and it was observed that the engines awaiting induction are kept in open space, which in the long run will have serious flight safety ramifications.”

In another report, Yatish also points out how the UPA ignored reforms in the PSU. In 2012, for instance, a joint quality audit revealed that the defence public sector undertaking was “in dire need of government support.” Why didn’t Rahul take care of the ‘temple’?

Responding to Rahul’s allegations, government sources have pointed out that NDA has given orders worth Rs 22,000 crore every year to HAL. During UPA regime from 2004-14, HAL received Rs 10,000 crore per year worth of orders. If Rahul is so concerned about HAL, why did his government fail to come to its aid, sort out its chronic issues and flood it with orders? Why couldn’t the Congress seal a deal with France to let HAL produce Rafale?

These are legitimate questions. These have been asked before and might be asked of Rahul again. That doesn’t mean the Gandhi scion will stop gaslighting on Rafale or HAL. While the Congress president is entitled to adopt a political strategy of his choice, the larger questions remain. Can a leader bluff his way to power? What price democracy?

The article ws first published in

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