Former PM Rajiv Gandhi having food with navy personnel on INS Viraat aircraft carrier

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's claims that Rajiv Gandhi used Indian Navy ship as 'personal taxi' for holidaying has opened a can of worms, the latest addition to the day's news cycle being several navy veterans getting embroiled in the ongoing political mudslinging.

Soon after former navy chief Admiral Laxminarayan Ramdas joined the debate by choosing to defend the late prime minister, another group of ex-naval officers have backed the Bharatiya Janata Party's claim.

Former Navy Commander VK Jaitly (Retd) tweeted to state that the Gandhi family had extensively used naval resources during their holidays.

"Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi used INS Viraat for travel to celebrate their holidays at Bangaram island. Indian Navy resources were used extensively. I am a witness. I was posted on INS Viraat that time,” Jaitly's tweet read.

"I was witness to the entire episode. A room was readied in the admiral’s cabin for the Gandhis. It's true that the Gandhis used INS Viraat to head towards Lakshadweep. It’s not a small thing. Vice Admiral Pasricha was our commanding officer. He would know about the foreigners. The warship was anchored off Lakshadweep. It’s was not a small fleet. We were told they were coming to ship and that it would sail to Bangaram. One admiral room was readied. The ship went to Kochi to pick them up. They stayed overnight. After that, they left towards Lakshadweep on a chopper. They did stay on a ship. The ship anchored nearby Bangaram. The aircraft carrier never sails alone. Several Naval ships accompanied. Resources were used," Jaitly further added to his tweet while speaking to Republic TV.

Another former navy officer, Lieutenant Commander Harinder Sikka told Times Now, that the Gandhis using naval resources was not appreciated by the naval officers but they were forced to remain quiet. “We were helpless because we could not speak or raise objections. They would have booked us for mutiny.”

Sikka also said that the presence of Sonia, who he dubs a 'foreign national', was what that irked many who were part of the fleet.

"Prime Minister in INS Viraat is ok but his wife was a foreign national and sensitive information was at stake. No one, even Navy officers, was not allowed inside but here they were holidaying. I raised the issue before the Commanding Officer and I was asked to shut up. He is the Prime Minister. Even if you use a pin from a Navy ship, it has to be docketed." Sikka told the news channel.

"A foreign national was roaming freely in the most-coveted warship. Control rooms were made open for civilians. Navy resources were used for holidaying. It was not right. We were furious but as serving officers, we could do nothing. Now we are speaking out," he added.

The two naval officers' remarks come after a former navy chief, Ramdas issued a statement Thursday refuting Modi's claims that Rajiv used INS Viraat as a "personal taxi" for ten days. "I would like to state unequivocally, that this was not the case," Ramdas said in his statement.

The former navy chief quoted parts of written responses from retired Vice Admiral Vinod Pasricha (then captain and commanding officer of INS Viraat) and other officials. He also referred to a note from an officer who was then the naval officer in charge of Lakshadweep islands.

"Prime Minister and Mrs Gandhi were embarked on board INS Viraat off Trivandrum enroute Lakshadweep. The Prime Minister was at Trivandrum as chief guest for the National Games prize distribution. He was going to Lakshadweep on official duty, to Chair a meeting of IDA ( Islands Development Authority) . This meeting is held alternately in Lakshadweep and in Andamans," he said in the statement.

Ramdas in his statement also stressed that "there were no foreigners with" the former prime minister when he was on board INS Viraat. He also pointed out that the "PM is authorised to travel along with his spouse by service aircraft on official duties".

The two naval officers who have come out in support of Modi's claim did not elaborate whether Sonia's parents, who were Italian nationals, were present onboard as claimed. They also do not explicitly state whether the trip was an official visit or a holiday.

Ramdas' statement came hours after the Congress hit back at Modi for making the allegation against Rajiv.

Congress spokesperson Pawan Khera also said that Pasricha has clarified that Rajiv was on an official visit on INS Viraat and not on a vacation.

"But facts don't matter to Modi. He doesn't have anything to talk about his own achievements. Rahul Gandhi has been challenging him for last six months now to debate on Rafale deal, demonetisation, unemployment, but Modi does not have the courage to speak," Khera said at a press conference.

"Modiji tells us that 30 years ago, Rajiv went for a holiday in INS Viraat. The prime minister is a serial liar. A senior official has exposed his lies today. Retired Vice Admiral Vinod Pasricha appeared on channels some time back and stated that this is a lie and the then PM was on an official visit and not on a holiday," he said.

Modi, at a rally in New Delhi on Wednesday, accused the Gandhi family of misusing warship INS Viraat for a holiday when Rajiv Gandhi was at the helm, launching a fresh attack on the late Congress leader days after throwing the "Bhrashtachari number 1 (corrupt number 1)" barb at him.

"Ever imagined that a premier warship of the Indian armed forces could be used as a taxi for a personal holiday? One dynasty did it," Modi claimed. The navy was made to host the Gandhi family and Rajiv Gandhi's in-laws, and a helicopter was also deployed in their service, Modi claimed, adding that when a family becomes supreme, the country's security is at stake.

"INS Viraat was insulted by using it as a personal taxi. This happened when Rajiv and his family was out for a 10-day vacation. INS Viraat was deployed for securing our maritime boundary. But it was diverted to take the Gandhi family which was out for a vacation," Modi had said.

Congress leaders, including its president Rahul Gandhi and general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, have hit out at Modi for his barb at their father, who was India's prime minister between 1984 and 1989.