Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s allegation that the late Rajiv Gandhi used INS Viraat as "personal taxi on a family vacation” has led to a political storm with a series of claims and counter-claims.
PM Modi, at a rally on Wednesday, accused the Gandhi family of using warship INS Viraat as its "personal taxi" for a holiday when Rajiv Gandhi was at the helm, launching a fresh attack on the late Congress leader days after throwing the "bhrashtachari no 1" barb at him.
"Ever imagined that a premier warship of the Indian armed forces could be used as a taxi for a personal holiday? One dynasty did it," PM Modi had asked.
The Navy was made to host the Gandhi family and Rajiv Gandhi's in-laws, and a helicopter was also deployed in their service, he claimed, adding that when a family becomes supreme, the country's security is at stake.
"INS Viraat was insulted by using it as a personal taxi. This happened when Rajiv Gandhi and his family was out for a 10-day vacation. INS Viraat was deployed for securing our maritime boundary. But it was diverted to take the Gandhi family which was out for a vacation," PM Modi had said.
Commander V K Jaitly, who was posted on INS Viraat at that time, backed the PM’s claim, saying that the warship was used by Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi to “celebrate their holidays”.
“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. Commander VK Jaitly,” he said.
On the other hand, former Navy chief Admiral (retd) L Ramdas as well as a former commanding officer of the aircraft carrier rejected the PM's allegation.
Ramdas, who was the Southern Navy Commander then and was also onboard the INS Viraat, in a statement, said "no foreigners visited INS Viraat and that the prime minister and his wife were onboard the aircraft carrier" following all official protocol.
"I would like to state unequivocally, that this was not the case," he said referring to the media report which was cited by Modi.
Ramdas said he issued the statement after getting written responses on the issue from Vice Admiral Pasricha, Admiral (retd) Arun Prakash, who was commanding INS Vindhyagiri and Vice Admiral (retd) Madanjit Singh, who was the commanding officer of INS Ganga.
Ramdas also asserted that, "no ships were specifically diverted for personal use of the Gandhi family. Only one small helicopter was left at Kavratti to meet any emergency medical requirements of the PM and his wife."
Meanwhile, Congress spokesperson Pawan Khera said retired Indian Navy Vice Admiral Vinod Pasricha has clarified that the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was on an official visit on INS Viraat and not on a vacation.
"But facts don't matter to Modi. He doesn't have anything to talk about his own achievements. Rahul Gandhi has been challenging him for last six months now to debate on Rafale deal, demonetisation, unemployment, but Modi does not have the courage to speak," he said at a press conference.
"We are now hearing that. Modi ji tells us that 30 years ago Rajiv Gandhi went for a holiday in INS Viraat. Prime Minister is a serial liar. A senior official has exposed his lies today. Vice Admiral (retd) Vinod Pasricha appeared on channels some time back and stated that this is a lie and the then PM was on an official visit and not on a holiday," he said.
Wajahat Habibullah, who was the then administrator of Lakshwadeep, has also refuted PM Modi’s claim, saying that while INS Viraat was stationed in Lakshwadeep but the Gandhis were not holidaying aboard the ship.
“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 by India Today as saying.
“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 added.
He went on to slam PM Modi for raking up the issue and termed it as violation of the Model Code of Conduct.
Union minister Arun Jaitley took a potshot at the UPA government, saying that while the “kaamdars” used India’s naval fleet to strike at terror, “naamdars” used them for personal reasons.
Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman defence PM Modi’s statement and claimed that a crew of INS Viraat confirmed to her that Rajiv Gandhi’s family and his in-laws “misused” the warship.
The India Today report cited by PM Modi, which was originally published on January 31, 1988, states that Rajiv and his family were accompanied by Amitabh Bachchan and his family as well. Apart from Gandhis and Bachchans, guests at the warship included two other Indians – wife and daughter of Bijendra Singh, brother of former Union minister Arun Singh, and two other foreigners.
“Questionable actions were, however, in evidence. India's premier warship, INS Viraat, was used to transport the Gandhis and moved in the Arabian Sea for 10 days. Its daily expenditure at sea is astronomical as the Viraat travels with an entire retinue of escort ships. A submarine was also reported to be in attendance and some defence experts questioned the justification of depriving the navy of its most effective fighting component merely to suit Rajiv's holiday plans. Considerable expense was also incurred in setting up a special satellite link up at Agatti for the duration of the holiday,” the India Today report said.