At a rally in Delhi on 8 May, Prime Minister Narendra Modi alleged that former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi used the now decommissioned naval warship INS Viraat as a “personal taxi”, during a 10-day trip to Bangaram island in Lakshadweep.
Modi's claim was challenged by former navy chief Admiral Laxminarayan Ramdas, and the officer who captained the vessel, Vice-Admiral Vinod Pasricha, both of whom asserted that Rajiv Gandhi was aboard INS Viraat in an official capacity.
Pasricha told Firstpost in an interview that the contention that Rajiv and his family misused the ship was "completely false." Following their comments, two other officers issued statements to the contrary.
Firstpost spoke to former navy Commander VK Jaitly and former Lieutenant Commander Harinder Sikka, who appeared on television channels and backed Modi's claim. Edited excerpts follow:
Were you part of the crew? Where were you posted at that time when the said trip was taken and in what capacity? How did you get to know that Viraat was hosting the Gandhis?
Jaitly: Yes, I was a part of the crew. I was a lieutenant and a weapon maintaining officer. The preparations for the prime minister started a month prior. And everyone knew that the prime minister was arriving with his wife.
Sikka: I was not part of the crew. I was posted in Bombay. But my colleagues were part of the crew. There was an unspoken understanding that INS Viraat would be hosting the Gandhis. Everyone in the navy was aware of it.
Can you recount what happened when Gandhi family was onboard INS Viraat? Who accompanied the prime minister? Were there any foreigners on board?
Jaitly: The prime minister was accompanied by his wife. I don't remember whether his son was present. The admiral room was prepared for the prime minister and they stayed on the ship for 24 hours, after which they went to the island. I also met them at the evening party. For that duration of 10 days (in which they were on the island) the fleet remained near the island. And at the time of return, there was only Rajiv. Sonia was not accompanying him.
That Rajiv went on vacation after chairing a meeting of Islands Development Authority in Lakshadweep is a fact he accepted after the vacation ended and he returned to work. However, do you think it is relevant to discuss this ahead of the final two phases of elections?
Jaitly: Like I said, anyone can convert a private vacation into an official one. There is no doubt that it was vacation. Official engagements are of two to three hours and not 10 days.
You told Times Now that you aren’t sure whether the trip was official or not. But isn't that critical to the allegations that Modi has made?
Jaitly: I didn't say that. There is no doubt that it was a vacation. And every officer knew that.
But former Vice Admiral Vinod Pasricha has rejected these claims. He was the captain of the ship during the trip...
Jaitly: He only said it was an official engagement. He hasn't refuted the fact that the late prime minister came aboard the ship. But one can easily convert a private visit to an official one. And every officer was aware of the vacation.
How did you voice your objection? Whom did you approach?
Sikka: I complained to my immediate senior, but he suppressed the matter. After that, I had no options left. The officer who suppressed it has passed away. I don't want to take his name.
Jaitly: We never thought in those terms. We had orders: it has to be done and we just did that. At that time, it didn't feel like raising an objection was a concern. We thought we are hosting our prime minister and it didn't seem to be a big deal, but we were angry about them using the ship for a vacation.
Can you give us more details about media reports back then and how the late prime minister responded to the allegations?
Sikka and Jaitly: No. We don't remember anything about that.
Why do you say Rajiv Gandhi insulted the defence forces in this case?
Jaitly: Any person who uses the armed forces for his personal use is insulting the defence forces. Around six to eight ships accompanied the INS Viraat. All of them just stayed around the island while the Gandhis were enjoying their holiday.
Sikka: At the time, INS Viraat was the biggest aircraft carrier in the Indian Navy. It's absence for 10 days for a vacation was a big threat to national security.
The author is a freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters
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Updated Date: May 10, 2019 20:50:28 IST