New Delhi: T Suvarna Raju, former chairperson and managing director of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) said that they could have built Rafale fighters in India, had the government managed to close the original negotiations with Dassault and had actually signed a work-share contract with the French company.

Hindustan Times reported that Raju admitted that the HAL may not have been able to build the planes at the desired “cost-per-piece”, one of the reasons why that deal fell through but insisted that the company has the ability to make advanced fighters.

Raju said, “When HAL can build a 25-tonne Sukhoi-30, a fourth-generation fighter jet that forms the mainstay of the air force, from the raw material stage, then what are we talking about? We could have definitely done it (licence produced the Rafale jets)”.

In the interview to HT, Raju said that the HAL has maintained the Mirage-2000 aircraft, manufactured by Dassault Aviation, for the last 20 years and is involved in the complex upgrade programme as well. “We would have delivered on the Rafale too,” he added. “I was the leader of the technical team for five years and everything had been sorted out.”

Rahul Gandhi's statement demanding the resignation of Nirmala Sitharaman followed this statement by the former HAL head.

“The RM [Rafale minister] tasked with defending corruption has been caught lying again,” he tweeted. “The former HAL chief, TS Raju, has nailed her lie, that HAL didn’t have the capability to build the Rafale. Her position is untenable and she must resign.”

HAL's questionable record

The optimism of HAL's former head notwithstanding, the PSU's record cast some doubt over its ability to deliver the Rafales in time, which the IAF need fast owing to the depleting squadrons that would find it difficult to face a two-front war.

Last month, the Union government decided to hand over the control of the Bengaluru division of HAL to the IAF to prevent more time and cost overruns on the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) project.

In 2013, it was reported widely that the HAL was struggling to make the Basic Trainer Aircraft in the form of HTT-40. But the Swiss Pilatus PC-7 trainers the government had ordered arrived from the exporter country swiftly.

Past and present HAL projects like Tejas light combat aircraft, Dhruv advanced light helicopters and indigenous Sukhoi-30MKI fighters as well as Hawk AJTs (advanced jet trainers) have all run behind schedule. It had frustrated the IAFD so much that it said in 2011 when there was a UPA government at the Centre and AK Antony was the defence minister, that it wanted full control of the HAL, fed up with its "bureaucratic culture". Raju was the director of the design and development department of the HAL during the UPA era.