The former chairperson and managing director of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, T Suvarna Raju, on Wednesday claimed the state-run plane manufacturer could have built Rafale jets in India if the government had signed a work-share contract with French firm Dassault Aviation. In an interview to the Hindustan Times, Raju, who retired on September 1, asked why the Union government was not releasing the files.

“When HAL can build a 25-tonne Sukhoi-30, a fourth-generation fighter jet that forms the mainstay of the air force, from raw material stage, then what are we talking about?” he asked. “We could have definitely done it [licence produced the Rafale jets].” He, however, added that Hindustan Aeronautics Limited may not have been able to build the planes at the desired “cost-per-piece”.

He said Dassault and the state-run company had signed a mutual work-share contract and had given it to the government. “The files will tell you everything,” he told the daily. “If I build the planes, I will guarantee them.”

Raju said Hindustan Aeronautics 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.”

Talking about the price, Raju said one must consider the life-cycle costs and not the cost per piece of a fighter. “Life-cycle costs would have definitely been cheaper,” he claimed. “And ultimately it’s about self reliance. There is a learning curve. If the French are making 100 jets in says 100 hours, I will take 200 hours as I am doing it for the first time. I can’t do it in 80 hours. It’s a scientific process.”

India signed an inter-governmental agreement with France in 2016 to buy 36 Rafale fighter jets for Rs 58,000 crore.

Rafale minister must resign: Rahul Gandhi

Taking note of Raju’s interview, Congress President Rahul Gandhi on Thursday said Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman must resign. “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.”

The Opposition party has accused the Narendra Modi government of getting an overpriced deal. It has also accused the government of helping a defence firm owned by Anil Ambani, which has no experience in the sector, land a mega contract under the deal. On Wednesday, a delegation of Congress leaders submitted a memorandum to the Comptroller and Auditor General of India regarding alleged irregularities in the Rafale jet deal and demanded a thorough investigation into the purchase details.

Gandhi had lashed out at Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman during the Monsoon Session of Parliament and accused them of not being truthful about the deal.

The government has denied the Opposition’s allegations. Defence Minister Sitharaman on Tuesday said the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited was excluded from the deal by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government. “HAL and Dassault [Aviation] couldn’t agree on production terms,” she said. “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?”

The following day, Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad told reporters that the Indian Air Force needs new planes as old ones are prone to accidents. “I don’t think JPC or CAG inquiry is set up to satisfy ego of an ill-informed leader,” he said.