The Shiv Sena and its MP Ravindra Gaikwad, in the eye of a storm over assaulting an Air India staffer in March, today blew hot and cold over revocation of the flying ban on the Lok Sabha member from Osmanabad.
Declared persona non grata by all major domestic airlines, Gaikwad today tendered apology to the Lok Sabha for the incident and also voiced "regret" over the "unfortunate incident", while a combative Shiv Sena threatened to disrupt AI operations in Mumbai and Pune forced repeated adjournment of the House over the issue.
It also declared it would not attend the April 10 meeting of the NDA if the ban was not lifted.
Gaikwad, who attended the proceedings for the first time since the incident when he assaulted an Air India employee and boastfully claimed on national TV about having hit him with slippers 25 times, played a victim, insisting he had only retaliated against provocation.
As the ruling NDA ally made an all-out attempt to get the ban lifted, a string of meetings followed to break the impasse, with first signs of a possible resolution emerging when Home Minister Rajnath Singh assured the House that discussions will be held with the stakeholders to find an "amicable solution" at the earliest.
In the evening, Gaikwad wrote a letter to Union Civil Aviation Minister Ashok Gajapthi Raju voicing "regret" over the "unfortunate incident".
"I write to convey my regrets for the unfortunate incident that took place on 23rd March, 2017 in the Air India Flight No. AI-852 seat No. 1F," Gaikwad, who has been steadfast in refusing to tender an apology to either the national carrier or the staffer concerned, said.
WHAT GAIKWAD'S LETTER SAID
"It could have been no one's intention to have let the situation aggravate to the level that it eventually did. While the on-going investigation will bring out the factual sequence of events to fix responsibility, this incident may kindly not be seen as a reason for likely recurrence of such an event in future also," he said in the letter.
The letter, according to official sources, followed a meeting in Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajans chamber in Parliament where Shiv Sena MPs were told that if Gaikwad issued a statement committing that he would not engage in any such incident in future, the government could intervene and have the ban revoked.
"As the restriction on flying is affecting the effective discharge of my duties and responsibilities, I would request you to lift this restriction and let the investigation eventually determine the circumstances which led to the incident," Gaikwad said.
Air India sources, meanwhile, said the ban is still in force.
Sources in the Civil Aviation Ministry said Gaikwads letter was being "examined".
UPROAR IN LOK SABHA
"MoCA (Ministry of Civil Aviation) has always maintained that Gaikwad should tender an apology. Now that we have a letter with an undertaking that such incidents will not be repeated, his letter is being examined," sources said.
The day started with belligerent Shiv Sena MPs creating an uproar in the Lok Sabha where they surrounded Raju after the latter refused to concede their demand for lifting the ban.
The House watched in shock as Sena MPs banged Raju's bench in unbridled fury and refused to allow him to leave. Among those who joined in creating the ruckus was the lone Sena minister in the union cabinet Anant Geete.
Rajnath Singh had to intervene to placate the agitated Sena members and usher Raju out.
"Aircraft is a machine where people fly. Safety is important. Safety cannot be compromised," Raju had earlier said, while responding to the Shiv Senas demand. His response left the Sena MPs fuming.
Before Raju spoke, Geete too joined his colleagues in condemning the action against Gaikwad and appeared to be taking a dig at the government when he said it is a peoples government but the "one-sided decision" was "shameful and tragic".
MIX OF DEFIANCE AND AN ATTEMPT AT RECONCILIATION
Gaikwad, the MP from Maharashtras Osmanabad, read out a statement in the House which was a mix of defiance and an attempt at reconciliation. However, all the while he played the victim card as he sought "justice" for himself.
Having repeatedly bragged about how he beat up the elderly Air India staffer R Sukumar, attempted to throw him off the stationary aircraft on landing at Delhi airport and held up the plane for an hour, Gaikwad today claimed he had only pushed him, that too after being provoked.
The Sena MP claimed that an official, when asked about his identity, told him that he was "Air India ka baap" (Air Indias father) and taunted him by asking "are you Narendra Modi", when he said he was a Lok Sabha MP. Gaikwad claimed he just pushed the official only after he was pushed around. Air Indias charge that he fought with its officials over a seat was "wrong", he said, adding that airline officials got angry with him when he demanded a complaint book. He also lashed out at Air India and other airlines for barring him from flying. Many members were seen smiling when he said he has been a teacher and humility is his nature.
He said he had the video clippings of the incident which "will prove my case." Gaikwad also cited the comments of an Air India air hostess, claiming she had blamed the airline official for the incident.
NO APOLOGY TO AIRLINES OFFICIALS
Gaikwad struck a somewhat conciliatory note when he tendered an apology to Parliament but insisted he owed no apology to the airline officials.
Soon after, Shiv Sena leaders held a press conference where they declared the party would not attend a proposed meeting of the ruling NDA on April 10 if the ban was not lifted by then.
"If separatists, rapists and terrorists are allowed to travel on flights then why not an MP. There are so many MPs, who are involved in agitation. Are you (the airlines) going to impose a travel ban on them as well?
"We will not attend the NDA meeting on April 10 if the travel ban on Gaikwad is not revoked," Shiv Senas Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Raut said. Seeking to add more weight to the threat, he told journalists it is an "instruction from party chief Uddhav Thackeray".
Raut denounced registration of an FIR against Gaikwad under section 308 of IPC related to attempt to murder. "He should have been booked for assaulting (the Air India Officer) with a chappal. Instead, he has been booked for attempt to murder," Raut said.
After the reported threat by Shiv Sena to stall Air Indias operations at Mumbai and Pune airports, the national carrier said it was stepping up the security of its staff there.
"We are enhancing security of our staff deployed at Mumbai and Pune Airport in the wake of threat to ground flight operations at these aerodromes," an Air India source said. Some Air India employees unions in Mumbai and Pune are affiliated to Shiv Senas trade union Bharatiya Kamgar Sangh.
Amid tough posturing by Shiv Sena and following Rajnath Singhs assurance about efforts to find an amicable solution to the imbroglio, Speaker Sumitra Mahajan held a meeting with MPs of Shiv Sena and TDP, to which Raju belongs. The Sena and TDP MPs also held talks after their meeting with Mahajan, who too pitched for the matter to be resolved amicably.