In the thick of his campaign for the Lok Sabha elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi pulled out another arrow from his seemingly inexhaustible quiver. At a public meeting in Delhi, PM Modi said: “Have you ever heard that someone uses INS Viraat to enjoy a holiday? It happened when Rajiv Gandhi was the PM of this country. INS Viraat, which was deployed on the sea borders, was sent to facilitate a holiday for 10 days.” He also tweeted a report from January 1988, written in a news magazine, about that holiday. Forget for a moment why a long dead prime minister, and his holiday three decades ago, have suddenly become the theme of the Modi campaign. In any case, the news reports from that period do not suggest that the holiday was on the Viraat. It was on the island. Leave aside, too, the question how the prime minister got this wrong.
What is truly remarkable is the wealth of detail available about that holiday in news reports of that period, so much so that three decades later, a prime minister could find one and put it out on Twitter for everyone to read.
The Indian Express covered the holiday on Bangaram Island in Lakshadweep quite extensively. It was the time that Rajiv Gandhi was on the ropes after a two-year honeymoon with the media. The Congress’s four-fifths majority in Parliament (won in the 1984 election) did not mean that the media was falling in. The Bofors scam had already started unfolding in April of 1987, and from there on, it was all downhill. All too quickly, it was open season.
Reading the archives of those years was a reminder that all you heard in the newsroom of that period was Fairfax, Thakkar commission, Bofors, Snam Progetti, cabinet meetings in Sariska and holidays in the Andamans one year, Lakshadweep the next. In fact, the question then was not about INS Viraat standing by as the prime minister and his large entourage holidayed on Bangaram, but why a holiday at all. “The system of year end holidays and holding of Cabinet meetings in tourist resorts, something prevalent in the affluent West, emerged on the Indian scene only after Mr Gandhi became Prime Minister,” an early report in The Indian Express pointed out. A cartoon in this paper summed up the national feeling then: Rajiv sitting under a coconut tree on an island in the Arabian Sea, saying: “Ah! To get away from it all!” and India responding with a sigh and a question: “When?” Not that Rajiv did not hit back. There were no proxy troll armies to create an atmosphere of intimidation. But months after the Lakshadweep holiday, came the Anti-Defamation Bill of 1988, which had to be abandoned in the face of a backlash from the newspapers that came out in one voice against it. There were raids on the premises of The Indian Express, ostensibly to look for evidence that the newspaper had evaded customs duty. For those of us present in the office that day, the manner in which hundreds of armed CRPF and Delhi police personnel took position inside and outside the Delhi office seemed way out of proportion for a tax evasion raid. A strike at The Indian Express just before the 1989 elections, calling for higher salaries, was also blamed on the Congress.
It may not have been his intention, but in talking about an event that occurred more than 30 years ago, detailed painstakingly in news reports of the time, Prime Minister Modi has reminded the media how important it is to speak truth to power and question those who hold high office.
Enough questions were asked of Rajiv Gandhi when he was in power, so much so that he was defeated in the 1989 elections. He is history now. Cabinet minister Arun Jaitley said the other day that the Congress has been reduced to a “fringe” party. But many still question the Congress party and its present day leaders as if this is 1987, or as if it is the Congress that has ruled the country over the last five years.
Few questions have been asked of Modi; fewer have been allowed to ask those questions. Unlike Rajiv Gandhi, who despite facing a hostile media, was game enough to hold press conferences — it was at one such press conference at Vigyan Bhavan that he sacked then foreign secretary A P Venkateswaran — the present prime minister has had little for the media except in these final weeks of his term when he has given interviews.
But PM Modi has shown us the mirror, provided us a timely reminder that we must ask questions of those who wield power. So, a question for you, Prime Minister Modi: Is it to deflect from the inadequacies and failings of your own five year term that you have dredged up a 30 year old prime ministerial holiday?
This article appeared in print with the headline: Once upon a PM’s holiday