A day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed in an election speech that the former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had used aircraft carrier INS Viraat for personal holiday in 1987 along with his family, the then top commander of the Navy on Thursday denied the comments, stating that the late Rajiv Gandhi was on-board the vessel on an official trip en route to the Lakshadweep islands.
“I, as Flag officer Commanding-in-Chief, Southern Naval Command also boarded INS Viraat. There were no other parties held on board INS Viraat,” Admiral L. Ramdas said in an open letter with collated responses from other top officers of the Western Fleet at that time.
The former officers quoted in the statement include Vice Admiral Vinod Pasricha, then Captain and Commanding Officer (CO) of INS Viraat; former Navy Chief Admiral Arun Prakash, then CO of INS Vindhyagiri, which was accompanying the carrier; and Vice Admiral Madanjit Singh, then CO of INS Ganga.
“I would like to state unequivocally that this [allegation that Mr. Gandhi was on holiday with his family] was not the case. Four other ships were with INS Viraat as part of Fleet exercises. As FOC-in-C, I hosted a dinner for them on board INS Viraat. There were no other parties held on board INS Viraat or, for that matter, any other ship in our fleet during that time,” former Navy Chief Admiral L. Ramdas said.
At a press conference in Delhi, Congress spokesperson Pawan Khera said, “Rajiv Gandhi was on an official visit and it was not a holiday, but facts do not matter to Prime Minister Modi.”
The Congress leader criticised the NDA government, stating “Modi government has nothing to say about its achievements. PM Modi asks for votes on his failures and a prime example is Pulwama terror attack which happened due to its monumental failure on internal security.”
He questioned, “Why is the Prime Minister Modi not debating on Rafale deal for even 25 minutes as asked by Congress president Rahul Gandhi who even reduced the duration to 10 minutes. BJP does not have the courage to debate on Rafale, demonetisation and failure on employment.”
He further said, “We have asked through RTI who are those people who fly with Prime Minister Modi and his ministers on the state visits abroad.”
Hitting out at BJP, Khera said, “It is in our culture to not talk about negatively about the dead person, but if you want to debate on Bofors we are ready.”
On whether the story was as controversial back then as it has become now, journalist Anitha Pratap who broke the story in 1988, said, “Not at all. Strange as it may seem, what was more controversial back then was Rajiv Gandhi saving a whale. It became controversial as it was a dolphin that he had saved, as reported by me.”
“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.”
Speaking in Bhopal, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had directly targeted the Congress on the issue. “What happened on INS Viraat is known to everyone and it is in the public domain. The clear misuse of the Army, Navy and Air Force by the Congress is well-known but now they [the Congress] are shedding crocodile tears asking whether PM Modi is misusing the name of the military,” she was quoted saying.