Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Tuesday said the state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Limited was excluded from the Rafale deal by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government itself. “HAL and Dassault [Aviation] couldn’t agree on production terms,” said Sitharaman while addressing the Indian Women’s Press Corps. “So HAL and Rafale couldn’t go together. Doesn’t that very clearly say who didn’t go together with HAL and under which government it happened.”

Since India signed an inter-governmental agreement with France in 2016 to buy 36 Rafale fighter jets at a cost of Rs 58,000 crore, it has been accusing the Narendra Modi government of getting an overpriced deal. The government has refused to reveal the per-plane price that it has negotiated in the deal, citing a secrecy agreement with France.

The Congress has claimed that the Narendra Modi government overlooked HAL to help a defence firm owned by Anil Ambani with no experience in the sector to land a mega contract under the deal. It has alleged that the government changed the contract to favour the industrialist without naming him.

To this, Sitharaman pointed out the rules framed by the previous Congress-led coalition had allowed the foreign companies to enter into a deal with private companies as well to satisfy offset clauses. “Do you say that your rule was wrong... It is your rule,” said Sitharaman, according to the Hindustan Times.

Earlier in the day, former Defence Minister AK Antony criticised Sitharaman for saying that HAL did not have the required capability to produce the jets in India. “She has tarnished the image of HAL, which is the only company that can manufacture the fighter aircraft in India,” he had said. “We don’t know what her intentions were in ridiculing a public sector undertaking under her own ministry.”

Sitharaman also raised the matter of Punjab minister Navjot Singh Sidhu hugging Pakistan’s Army chief on his Islamabad visit last month, and said he could have avoided it as the gesture had “an impact” on Indian soldiers, PTI reported.

“Sidhu has a lot of admirers...somebody of that stature going there and then hugging the chief of the Army – an Army about which in India we have very clear feelings – it certainly has an impact on soldiers,” Sitharaman said. “It demoralises the people. I wish Sidhu would have avoided it.”

The minister clarified she was speaking only about the hug, and not the Congress leader’s visit itself, according to ANI. She was speaking to the media at the Indian Women’s Press Corps in New Delhi.

Sidhu had visited Islamabad in August to attend the oath-taking ceremony of Prime Minister Imran Khan. Both Sidhu and Khan are former cricketers. His visit was criticised by opposition parties in Punjab after he was seen hugging Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa.

After he returned, Sidhu claimed he had received a message from Imran Khan expressing his desire for peace between the two countries. He justified the hug, claiming Bajwa had assured him that the Sikh pilgrims from India would soon get access to a gurudwara in Kartarpur. Earlier on Tuesday, Union minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal claimed Sidhu had misled people on the assurance.