Vice Admiral (retired) Vinod Pasricha, who was the captain of INS Viraat in December 1987, categorically denied that former prime minister and late Rajiv Gandhi had used this warship as his 'personal taxi' to enjoy a vacation in the island of Lakshadweep as alleged by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. At a recent campaign rally, Modi even alleged that Rajiv had hosted several foreigners (read Sonia Gandhi's relatives) on board with him. Pasricha, who retired from the navy in 2002 as the Western Naval Command chief, speaks exclusively to Rashme Sehgal about the ongoing controversy. Here are the edited excerpts of the interview:
Q: Did Rajiv Gandhi use INS Viraat to enjoy a personal holiday? A: This information is completely false. He went to Lakshadweep in his official capacity as the Prime Minister of India to chair a meeting of the Islands Development Authority. In those days, the Islands Development Authority meet used to be held in alternate years. Wajahat Habibullah was, I understand, the then administrator of Lakshadweep. Six people came on board the INS Viraat. They were Rajiv, Sonia, Rahul, who was then a young boy around the age of sixteen, and three IAS officers.
Q: You mean there were no foreigners with him? A: Had foreigners boarded the carrier, I would have been court-martialed a long time ago.
Q: Can you tell us the details of Rajiv Gandhi's stay aboard INS Viraat? A: We took a helicopter till Trivandrum and then sailed to the Lakshadweep Islands, which was at a distance of 200 nautical miles. He (Rajiv) then went on to visit six islands and was dropped back after a two-day stay. The three IAS officers, who had accompanied him on board the ship, went along with him (and Sonia) when he went to these islands. The logistics (for these visits) was provided by the navy. The logistics (for these visits) was provided by the navy. In those days, there were no airports but these islands did have helipads and the former prime minister took the helicopter to visit these islands. Naval ships used to take the prime minister when he visited these islands on a biannual basis.
Q: What was the procedure adopted to take a prime minister during that time, especially given that the current prime minister has accused the then dispensation of compromising national security by holidaying in INS Viraat? A: We are talking about 1987 which was a long time ago. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was in Trivandrum as the chief guest for the National Games prize distribution. He embarked from there and we went to Lakshadweep. Since these were not states,(they were Union Territories) their development was overseen by the prime minister himself.
Q: But I understand a number of parties were hosted on board the INS Viraat? A: I do not know from where he (Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who alleged that Rajiv used the aircraft carrier as a "taxi") has got all this information from. He claims to be quoting from a newspaper published over two decades ago. I don't know where all this is coming from.
I was the captain of INS Viraat. They (Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi) had no functions aboard the ship. You know when a prime minister comes aboard a ship, the young officers are keen to meet him. We invited him to the mess. We hosted a dinner on board the ship so he could meet all the officers. He was there for two days and I can vouch for the fact that he took nothing along with him when he left. During the day, he visited the islands but Rahul did not accompany him on those visits.
Q: Allegations have been made on television that Rajiv Gandhi visited some sensitive areas on INS Viraat which are out-of-bounds for civilians? A: He had no time to go around the ship. And let me clarify that there is no area on the ship which is out of bounds for a prime minister.
Q: But what is the protocol for visits of senior government dignitaries? A: Several dignitaries are known to have travelled on these warships. When I was commanding INS Vindhyagiri, President Zail Singh and his family came on board. That was in 1985. We picked him up from Goa and then dropped him back. Prime minister Indira Gandhi visited INS Viraat three times. When INS Viraat arrived in Mumbai from Britain, Rajiv was in Mumbai to receive it. A lot of prime ministers discuss naval politics when they are on these ships. Prime minister Modi was on INS Viraat just three to four months ago when it was on exercise. This is a regular practise and there was nothing out of the ordinary in what Rajiv Gandhi did.
Q: But the navy is reported to have helped the logistics in helping the late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi holiday in the Bangaram island. A: A few naval divers were sent ashore for safety during their visit to Bangaram island as Rajiv Gandhi and his wife were planning to do scuba diving there for half an hour.
Q: Was Priyanka Gandhi on board INS Viraat? A: No, she was not there.
Q: Did you sign the petition last month which was endorsed by several senior armed forces personnel and given to President Ram Nath Kovind warning him about repeated attempts being made to politicise the armed forces? A: No, I was not a signatory to it.
Q: But over 140 senior armed personnel signed it? A: I do not want to get into this debate. The Indian navy has been a silent service. It there is a problem (in the navy), it should be discussed with senior naval officers rather than with politicians. That is my opinion.
Q: But there are photographs circulating which show Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru on board a naval ship with his two grandchildren Rajiv and Sanjay dressed as sailors with Indira Gandhi in the background. Were they on a cruise to Indonesia? A: As I pointed out, this was a regular practice and this happened before Air India carrier had begun to operate. In those days, leaders and other dignitaries used to travel very frequently by ship.