Amid Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s allegation of Rajiv Gandhi using INS Viraat as a "personal taxi" breaking out a full-blown controversy, the journalist who broke out the story way back in 1988 said that the revelation did not create much controversy back then as media soon moved to other stories, particularly the Bofors scam, reported India Today.
“This was a matter of a sitting prime minister, so the Navy was tight lipped. The Navy is tight-lipped on controversies, not just in India, but other countries as well. News about Bofors scam had broken and that was obviously the focus then, than Rajiv Gandhi vacationing in Lakshadweep,” journalist Anitha Pratap was quoted by India Today as saying.
She added that the story was about the misuse of the warship and was a matter of concern even at that time. “I have also mentioned about honourable men and women in the story. One can follow up with them on it as they will definitely not lie. They will tell the truth or not, that’s a different story altogether,” said.
While addressing an election rally here on Wednesday, PM Modi cited an old India Today report to allege that Gandhi used the INS Viraat to go on a holiday with his friends and in-laws as if it was his "personal taxi".
The report 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.
However, on Thursday, contradicting PM Modi’s claim, Wajahat Habibullah, who was the then administrator of Lakshwadeep, said the late prime minister and his wife had come to attend a meeting of the Island Development Authority in Kavaratti which lasted for two days and after the official work got over, they left for Bangaram island to join the family and other guests.
"His (Gandhi's) holidays had nothing to do with the official function. The Prime Minister (Modi) should check facts before making such statements," he said.
Vice Admiral (Retd) Vinod Pasricha, who was commanding the ship during the then prime minister's visit, trashed reports that Gandhi's friends and as well as his wife Sonia's relatives were onboard the warship when he was enroute to Lakshadweep from Trivandrum.
"All protocols were followed during Gandhi's official visit in 1987. No foreigners or other guests were present onboard the ship. The claim was totally wrong," Vice Admiral (Retd) Pasricha said when asked about Gandhi's visit in later part of 1987.
He said Gandhi visited Lakshadweep to attend a meeting of the Island Development Authority, and his wife Sonia and his son Rahul were onboard the warship during the trip, adding the then PM also visited Bangaram during the two-day trip.
Former Navy chief Admiral (retd) L 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."
However, another former Navy Commander (retd) V K Jaitly, in a tweet, said "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 at that time."