NEW DELHI :
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s accusation that former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and his family used India’s aircraft carrier INS Viraat for holiday trip when the latter was in power in New Delhi in the 1980s has stirred a controversy with retired navy personnel supporting and disputing Modi’s statement.
On Wednesday, addressing an election rally at Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan, Modi said, “Friends, have you ever heard of anyone going on a holiday with his family on a warship? Don’t be surprised at this question. This has happened, in our country. The biggest ‘namdaar’ family of the Congress had used INS Viraat, the country’s pride, as its personal taxi."
“INS Viraat was securing the maritime boundaries at the time. But it was sent to fetch the Gandhi family going on vacation… In the list of holidayers were members of his sasuraal. Was the country’s security jeopardised or not?" Modi had asked.
India is in the midst of a general election with five phases of voting completed and two phases still to go. Results of the polls are expected on 23 May.
On Thursday, a Twitter post by Commander V.K. Jaitly, whose Twitter handle said that he was with the Navy for 22 years, seemed to corroborate Modi’s remarks.
“Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi used INS Viraat for travel to celebrate their holidays at Bangaram island. Indian Navy resources were used extensively. I am a witness. I was posted on INS Viraat that time," the post said.
A report in the
India Today news magazine in the 1980s said that Rajiv Gandhi was accompanied by his Italian born wife Sonia Gandhi, her mother, sister and brother-in-law besides some other relatives. Rajiv’s son, Congress president Rahul Gandhi and sister Priyanka, who is a Congress party general secretary were also on the islands with some friends, the India Today report said. The Gandhis’ were also accompanied by Bollywood film star Amitabh Bachchan and his family, the report added.
Refuting Modi’s charge, however, were news reports quoting Vice Admiral (retd) Vinod Pasricha, who was in-charge of INS Viraat. Pasricha was quoted as saying that the then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and his wife Sonia Gandhi were onboard the warship for an official two-day tour. All protocols were followed at the time and no foreigners or other guests were present, he said. “Nobody was on a holiday. Only Rahul Gandhi was with his family. No foreigner was with the PM," the former naval officer said.
Seemingly backing Pasricha’s comments was a statement from former Navy chief L. Ramdas who said in a statement that no ships were "specially diverted" for the personal use of the Gandhi family, neither were there any foreigners who came on board the vessel.
"The prime minister was at Trivandrum as a chief guest for National Games prize distribution. He was going to Lakshadweep on official duty to chair a meeting of Islands Development Authority. This meeting is held alternately in Lakshadweep and Andamans... I then hosted a dinner for the prime minister that night. And there is a photo to confirm this," he said in a statement.
According to Wajahat Habibullah, who was the administrator of Lakshwadeep Islands in the 1980s, then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi arrived on the islands in a government chopper. "INS Viraat was in the sea for the PM's backup security. The Prime Minister needs backup security and in the middle of the ocean, there's no other option other than warships," Habibullah was quoted as saying by the India Today news website.
"Rajiv Gandhi went to Lakshwadeep on an official meeting and decided to stay back when his guests also joined him. No foreigner or even the guests were allowed onboard INS Viraat," he was quoted as saying.
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