In a major embarrassment to the government, retired Admiral L. Ramdas on Thursday refuted Prime Minister Narendra Modi's claim that the late Rajiv Gandhi and his family had enjoyed a family cruise on the INS Viraat.
In a detailed statement, Admiral Ramdas, who was Chief of Naval Staff then, said the then Prime Minister had gone on an official trip to the Lakshadweep Islands to chair a meeting of the Islands Development Authority (IDA) held alternatively between Andaman and Lakshadweep Islands.
There were no parties held on INS Viraat or any of the other four warships accompanying the erstwhile aircraft carrier of the Indian Navy and no foreigners accompanied Rajiv Gandhi nor did current Congress President Rahul Gandhi accompany them then, said Admiral Ramdas, who is now settled in Raigad, adjoining Mumbai.
He said that the statement was issued after collating responses from his former senior naval colleagues - Admiral Arun Prakash, Vice Admiral Vinod Pasricha and Vice Admiral Madanjit Singh - all of whom were serving in the Western Fleet during the events referred to (by Modi) nearly 32 years ago.
At an election rally in Delhi on Wednesday, PM Modi referred to Rajiv Gandhi and charged him with using INS Viraat for a personal cruise lasting 10 days to the Lakshadweep Islands, with his family and his in-laws (Sonia Gandhi's family).
Presumably, Modi's comments were based on a report in India Today magazine, he said, adding: "I would like to state unequivocally that this was not the case."
He recounted the sequence of events of that period based on the replies by the retired naval top brass besides a naval officer who was then in-charge of the Lakshadweep Islands.
In December 1987, Rajiv Gandhi boarded INS Viraat off Thiruvananthapuram en route to Lakshadweep Islands, after attending an event as the chief guest at the National Games Prize distribution in the Kerala capital, and was proceeding to the Lakshdweep Islands for the IDA meet.
One of the officers stated that there were four other naval ships accompanying the INS Viraat for the Fleet Exercises and as the Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief based in Kochi he had boarded the aircraft carrier.
"As the FoC-C, I hosted a dinner for them (Rajiv and his wife) on board INS Viraat. There were no other parties held on board INS Viraat, or for that matter, on any other ship in our fleet during that time," the officer said.
However, the late Prime Minister and his wife visited some of the islands on short trips by helicopter to meet local officials and the local people.
"The PM is authorized to travel along with his spouse by service aircraft on official duties?" Admiral Ramdas said, adding that Rahul Gandhi, (who would have been barely 17 then), never accompanied them.
During Rajiv Gandhi's visit to Bangaram, on the last day, a few naval divers had been sent ashore for the Prime Minister's safety. No other ships had been diverted for the personal use of Gandhi family and only a small helicopter was stationed at Kavratti for medical emergency, said the statement.
Another officer said the meetings and functions (above) were held in December 1987 and the Western Fleet had planned its naval exercises with the (INS Viraat) much in advance in the annual exercise programme to be conducted in that region in the Arabian Sea.
"This was an opportunity for the officers and men to interact with their Prime Minister. He addressed the men, had 'Bada Khana' as per naval traditions," said an officer who later hosted a dinner for Rajiv Gandhi and produced a photograph to confirm it.