Rajiv’s family vacation: The full story
by N S Rajaram on 10 May 2019 11 Comments

It is now confirmed that Rajiv Gandhi in 1987, when he was prime minister used the carrier INS Viraat for a family vacation for his family (Sonia’s family) and some friends. A carrier does not go alone. It is accompanied by escort vessels like destroyers, frigates and a submarine or two. So what you have is not a carrier, but a carrier group or carrier fleet commanded by an admiral and several commanders. Here are some details of what Mr. Modi raised.


Prime Minister Narendra Modi was referring to the Gandhi family’s vacation in December 1987-January 1988 for New Year celebrations. The holidaying group included Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi and four of their friends, Sonia Gandhi’s mother, Gandhi’s sister, brother-in-law and their daughter, her brother and a maternal uncle. Also present were then MP Amitabh Bachchan, his wife Jaya Bachchan and their two children, daughter of Amitabh’s brother Ajitabh (who was being investigated for suspected violation of the Foreign Exchange Regulations Act). The only other Indian guests were former minister Arun Singh’s brother Bijendra Singh’s wife and daughter. Two other foreigners completed the party.


The location for the vacation was Bangaram, a small uninhabited island in the Lakshadweep archipelago. INS Viraat, the lone carrier of the Indian Navy at that time, was used to transport the Gandhi family and their companions, which moved in the Arabian Sea for 10 days for this vacation. Commander Jaitly, who was serving at the time, has confirmed that these parties were on board the carrier.


The island had been chosen with care: it is the only one in the strategic archipelago on which foreigners are not banned. It is also the exception in the group of islands in that prohibition is not in force. Even from the security angle, Bangaram, cut off from the rest of the world, is ideal. “It is a naturally secure place”, says Lakshadweep’s police chief P.N. Agarwal. It has beautiful beaches and other attractions like snorkelling and scuba diving. It is a true tropical paradise, especially for Italian visitors wanting to escape from the grip of winter and snow.


But in spite of official efforts to make the place inaccessible, the media found the goings-on on that little patch of sand irresistible. The spotlight swung on it on December 26, when Rajiv’s son Rahul alighted along with four friends from an orange-and-white Lakshadweep administration (government) helicopter. They were the first of the several batches of holiday-makers. The Government did its best to keep the press away: it tried to ensure that no one invaded the privacy of Rajiv’s party by either air or sea. But the list of invitees made news by itself.


While Rajiv and Sonia began their holiday only the afternoon of December 30, Amitabh, the star guest, arrived a day later, aboard a special Cochin-Kavaratti government helicopter flight. His wife Jaya had come in four days earlier, escorting Priyanka and her own children. The exercise was undertaken to keep the wraps on Amitabh’s visit to Bangaram. But on the small island of Kavaratti, the secret was no secret on December 31 itself, when he landed for a 50-minute refuelling halt en route to Bangaram. Later, as he landed at Cochin airport on his way back, Amitabh was discovered by an Indian Express photographer, who managed to expose four frames before the film star, his angry warnings unheeded, retreated to a nearby hotel.

Along with the presence of his Italian relatives, it was the presence of the Bachchan family that raised the hackles of Rajiv’s critics the most. Opposition leaders wanted to know what kind of message Rajiv was sending to officials probing Ajitabh’s assets in Switzerland by fraternising with Amitabh and his brother’s family. Said Kunji Koya, general secretary of the Indian Union Muslim League at Kavaratti: “It’s appalling that the helicopter should be used to transport just one man - that too a man whose name figures in the nation’s biggest scandal.”


But for an entire idyllic week, all that criticism was quietly ignored. The holiday-makers had an exotic, uninhabited island all to themselves and whiled away their time swimming, sun-bathing and, when the fancy took them, it was fishing and sailing time. They went on picnics to two uninhabited islands nearby, Thinnakara and Parali. And there were beach parties and music and fishing expeditions. But Sonia, who’s prone to asthma, preferred to admire the beauty of the corals through glass-bottomed boats, along with her mother and Jaya Bachchan, all at government expense.


Rajiv loved the place


Rajiv had spent a day at Bangaram in November 1985 and immediately took to the place. “He loved it; he swam a great deal,” recalls Wajahat Habibullah, administrator of Lakshadweep, who was then in the Prime Minister’s Secretariat.


It is impossible to calculate what the bill may have been as various agencies were involved. The food was provided by the Society for the Promotion of Recreation, Tourism and (Water) Sports (SPORTS), a wing of the Lakshadweep administration. Five of the Society’s personnel, including two cooks, were stationed at Bangaram. Of course, the menu was supervised by the Gandhis’ personal cook from New Delhi.

A consignment of wines and liquor was flown in from the capital by helicopter. (Bangaram has no prohibition.) A poultry farm with 100 chicken was set up in Agatti. Apart from sugar and freshly-caught fish, island fruits like the Lakshadweep papaya, sapota, small yellow bananas, and guavas were sent. Butter and some 100 loaves of bread were despatched from Kavaratti and from Cochin came Cadbury’s chocolates, 40 crates of cold drinks, 300 bottles of mineral water, Amul Cheese, cashew-nuts, sweet lime, condiments, 20 kg of flour, 105 kg of basmati rice, and fresh vegetables. The first consignment of non-perishable items was moved to Bangaram by ship on December 23. The second arrived three days later and replenishments came on January 1.


INS VIRAAT put to use


Questionable actions were, however, in evidence. India’s premier warship, INS Viraat, was used to transport the Gandhis and moved in the Arabian Sea for 10 days. Its daily expenditure at sea is astronomical as the Viraat travels with an entire retinue of escort ships. A submarine was reported to be in attendance and some defence experts questioned the justification of depriving the Navy of its most effective fighting component merely to suit Rajiv’s holiday plans.


This means a huge expenditure and serious threat to national security considering INS Viraat moved down south, leaving the sea wide open for India’s conventional enemy. This meant the Indian west coast was undefended, which is far more serious than the cost alone.


Considerable expense was also incurred in setting up a special satellite link up at Agatti for the duration of the holiday. But the expense was the least of the concern, compared to the vulnerability to the nation’s shores due to the absence of a whole carrier fleet for ten whole days.


Navy officers misused


The naval officers in charge had no option but to obey orders from their boss, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The issue really is the judgment of the Prime Minister who misused the nation’s defence forces for personal use, leaving the country’s coast vulnerable.


I had heard of this earlier from a medical officer, a naval surgeon, who was on duty in attendance on the fleet. He (now retired) had been my father’s trainee when my father taught at AFMC in Poona (now Pune). Usually this kind of VIP treatment is reserved for distinguished international guests like visiting heads of state (like Queen Elizabeth) and naval chiefs of friendly countries like the US and Russia. But Rajiv, for reasons known only to himself, decided to treat his Italian family and friends as visiting royalty.


This is not an isolated case. The late Dr. Raja Ramanna, former head of the Atomic Energy Commission, once told me that Rajiv wanted his relatives and friends to be shown around in official cars with government officers in attendance. It is no secret that the Gandhi family is extremely partial to Italians, which has been taken full advantage of by unscrupulous operators like Ottavio Quattrocchi and others. It is time to put an end to this plunder and misuse of national interests.


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