New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi has managed to make Rajiv Gandhi and his family’s alleged ‘joyride’ on board aircraft carrier INS Viraat a burning topic of discussion on the campaign trail. But even as archival news reports are circulated and retired officials rebut the charges, there is one incident from the trip that hasn’t come back to light — the story of how Rajiv Gandhi saved a beached whale.
The Los Angeles Times had reported that the whale had apparently been beached during low tide and had injured itself on a coral reef. India’s youngest prime minister then reportedly ran to the beach and jumped into a lagoon to save the whale, prompting his bodyguards and bystanders to splash in after him. Gandhi and the others then pushed the whale into deeper water.
Even this incident, however, was not free of controversy, as there was confusion about the identity of the mammal. Wajahat Habibullah, the IAS officer who was Administrator of Lakshadweep at the time, told ThePrint that there were some who claimed it was a dolphin and not a whale.
“It was certainly a whale. Every one of us present at the beach can confirm it. He was meeting and waving to people on the last day of his trip in Kavaratti (Lakshadweep’s capital) when he saw a creature battered and bruised by corals on lagoon due to low tide. He rushed to the water and so did other people with him, and pushed the whale out into the water,” Habibullah recalled.
“There was controversy in the media later, upon seeing the photograph of the incident, as some of the people claimed that it was a dolphin instead of a whale. But Rajiv Gandhi’s information officer Sharda Prasad got the PMO to investigate it and confirmed to me that it was indeed a special type of whale that lives near Lakshadweep, and bears a snout like a dolphin, which probably caused the confusion.”
No question of ‘recreational’ jaunt
Habibullah also categorically rejected PM Modi’s allegations as well as the claims of the 1988 India Today report that alleged Gandhi had used INS Viraat as a “personal taxi” for a 10-day family vacation including foreign nationals and celebrities.
Several versions have surfaced about the December 1987 visit, which have painted a portrait of an expensive and lavish holiday where wine flowed and delicacies were specially flown in. Archive material published in Friday’s The Indian Express describes in detail the holidaying group that consisted of 24 people. The newspaper claimed 70 people from various departments were allocated to make them comfortable. Security was beefed up with a reinforced naval fleet on 24-hour watch. Many other naval and civil resources were also deployed for the holiday.
One report said the BJP had questioned Gandhi on the cost incurred for the tour, and the identity of the guests. The party had also criticised Gandhi for spending on a lavish holiday when large parts the country were reeling under drought.
But Habibullah said these reports were inaccurate. “In no capacity did any civilian board any defence vessel for any recreational purposes in Lakshadweep. Only cabinet members and the prime minister boarded for the meeting. After the cabinet meeting, Rajiv’s family and friends, including the Bachchans, came to the islands. But they paid their own expenses to Pawan Hans (helicopter service).”
He reiterated his stance from another interview he gave to the National Herald, saying no bills for chartering means of transport were sent to his administration, and were settled by the individuals themselves.
“None of them even went to Kavaratti as the PM alleges. They took a helicopter service from Kochi to Bangaram. They even paid their own bills for helicopter and lodging; none of the receipts came to the administration,” he said.
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