New Delhi: A former commanding officer of India’s aircraft carrier INS Viraat has contradicted Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s claim that the vessel was used as a “taxi” by late Rajiv Gandhi when he was prime minister for a vacation to Lakshadweep’s Bangaram Atoll in 1988.
Vice Admiral Vinod Pasricha (Retd) told ThePrint that the PM’s statement at an election rally in New Delhi Wednesday was “completely wrong”, and said the Gandhi family was on board for an official visit.
“It is completely wrong to say that Viraat was used as a taxi. Rajiv Gandhi was on board for official work as the prime minister. He was accompanied by his wife and his son, who would have been about 17 then. Prime ministers are allowed to be accompanied by their immediate family,” he said.
Pasricha’s words were echoed in a media statement by Admiral L. Ramdas (retd), the former Chief of Naval Staff.
Ramdas, who was Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Southern Naval Command based in Cochin (now Kochi), was also on board the Viraat with the Gandhis. He said of Modi’s comments: “I would like to state unequivocally, that this was not the case.”
After his speech, Modi tweeted out an India Today report from January 1988 about the alleged trip, but Admiral Ramdas insisted that his own recollections were attested by Vice Admiral Pasricha, Admiral Arun Prakash (then-commanding officer of INS Vindhyagiri, which was accompanying Viraat) and Vice Admiral Madanjit Singh (then-commanding officer of INS Ganga).
Giving details of how the trip unfolded, Pasricha said: “The ship picked up the prime minister from Trivandrum (now Thiruvananthapuram) and took him to Agatti, where the annual meeting on the islands was being held. The Prime Minister spent two nights on board the ship and Viraat dropped him back to Trivandrum in two days.”
The meeting he was referring to was the meeting of the Islands Development Authority, which was held alternately in Lakshwadeep and the Andamans, according to Admiral Ramdas.
Pasricha said the ship was used to ferry the Gandhis because the air field was not ready. Another reason why Viraat was chosen rather than any other ship was that it had only recently been inducted into the Indian Navy.
“There were no film stars or foreigners as is being alleged,” the retired officer said.
Defence establishment in shock
Modi’s accusation came as shock for many in the defence establishment — most senior officers at the helm of the services were commissioned around the time of or after the alleged holiday. The India Today report went into great detail about the 10-day holiday, and alleged that Rajiv Gandhi’s Italian in-laws also went along for the ride.
“I was commissioned the same year that this incident happened. It is news to me too. A lot happens, but this news is really a shock and completely unbelievable,” a senior Navy officer said when asked about the trip taken by the Gandhi family.
The India Today report had said that eyebrows were raised that a newly-inducted aircraft carrier was used to transport the Gandhis and was stationed in the Arabian Sea for the duration of the alleged holiday.
“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,” the report written by Anita Pratap said.
“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.”
Defence expert Brahma Chellaney tweteed that this would have been the first case in the democratic world of a leader commandeering an aircraft carrier for a holiday cruise.
“Rajiv Gandhi was a decent PM. But if he took his in-laws from Italy on a 10-day jaunt aboard INS Viraat (an aircraft carrier decommissioned two years ago), it would represent the first case in the democratic world of a leader commandeering an aircraft carrier for a holiday cruise,” he tweeted.
Rajiv Gandhi was a decent PM. But if he took his in-laws from Italy on a 10-day jaunt aboard INS Viraat (an aircraft carrier decommissioned two years ago), it would represent the first case in the democratic world of a leader commandeering an aircraft carrier for a holiday cruise
— Brahma Chellaney (@Chellaney) May 9, 2019
A Indian Navy ship or an asset of the Indian Air Force is the equivalent of an army camp where movement is restricted to only uniformed personnel. Civilians need prior permission before entering any such base, ship or aircraft.
“While it is completely understandable if the family of a leader accompanies him/her on a visit to the ship or a base, commandeering an aircraft carrier for a personal holiday has never been heard of before. It is shocking,” a senior officer said, adding that he is not aware of the exact reasons why the Viraat was placed in the waters for 10 days.
Pasricha and Ramdas rebut the report’s claims
Vice Admiral Pasricha rebutted the claims made in the India Today report, pointing out that the ship had brought back the PM to Trivandrum in two days.
Admiral Ramdas’ statement also rejected the accusations. “They did, of course visit some of the Islands on short trips by helicopter to meet local officials, as also the people there. (PM is authorised to travel along with his spouse by service aircraft on official duties). From what I know only Rajiv and Sonia went ashore by helicopter and Rahul never accompanied them.
“The western fleet had planned its naval exercises with the aircraft carrier much in advance in the yearly exercise programme to be held in that part of the Arabian Sea. This was an opportunity for the officers and men to interact with their PM. He addressed the men, had ‘bada khana’ as per Naval custom. I then hosted a dinner for the Prime Minister that night. And there is a photograph to confirm this.
Ramdas added: “No ships were specially diverted for the personal use of the Gandhi family.”
Get the PrintEssential to make sense of the day's key developments