Idyllic vacation for the Gandhis in the Lakshadweep archipelagoIdyllic vacation for the Gandhis in the Lakshadweep archipelago.advertisement Anita Pratap November 21, 2013 ISSUE DATE: January 31, 1988UPDATED: May 9, 2019 10:05 IST India Today photo of Rajiv GandhiThe often frenetic pace of high politics in 1987, it seems, took its toll on world leaders’ nerves. So if Mikhail Gorbachev disappeared for a fortnight to the Black Sea beaches, and Ronald Reagan retired to the quiet of his Santa Barbara ranch, Rajiv Gandhi too decided to get awayThe often frenetic pace of high politics in 1987, it seems, took its toll on world leaders’ nerves. So if Mikhail Gorbachev disappeared for a fortnight to the Black Sea beaches, and Ronald Reagan retired to the quiet of his Santa Barbara ranch, Rajiv Gandhi too decided to get away from it all.The madding crowds of hangers – on, files, problems, dissidents: all became distant memories – literally – on the uninhabited island of Bangaram (area 0.5 sq km) in the Lakshadweep archipelago (36 islands, population: 44,000) nestling in the emerald blue Arabian Sea 465 km west of Cochin.Rajiv Gandhi emerging from the waterThe 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.After rescuing a dolphinBut 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 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. The privileged bunch included four friends of Rahul and Priyanka, Sonia Gandhi’s sister, brother-in-law and their daughter, her widowed mother, R. Maino, her brother and a maternal uncle. Also present were former MP Amitabh Bachchan, his wife Jaya and their three children. The daughter of Amitabh’s brother Ajitabh, who is being investigated for suspected violation of the Foreign Exchange Regulations Act, had gone along too. The only other Indian guests were the wife and daughter of Bijendra Singh, brother of former Union minister Arun Singh. Two other foreigners completed the party.advertisementSipping coconut water: Relaxed timeWhile Rajiv and Sonia began their holiday only on the afternoon of December 30, Amitabh, the star guest, arrived a day later, aboard a special Cochin – Kavaratti 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.”Aerial view of BangaramBut 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. Rajiv, Rahul and Priyanka were in the water a lot.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. While the others frolicked in the lagoon, Sonia would often sit chatting with her mother or Jaya under the shade of a coconut tree.Rajiv, however, roamed about as if he knew his way around the place and even waded into the water to save a bleeding dolphin that had been grounded. He 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 Habeebullah, administrator of Lakshadweep, who was then in the Prime Minister’s Secretariat. Last September, Rahul and Priyanka too holidayed in Lakshadweep with four friends. Rajiv later cleared their bill of Rs 18,000.advertisementThe cottage where the Gandhis stayedIt 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 also brought in from the capital. A poultry farm with 100 chickens 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.Amitabh Bachchan outside Cochin airportAccording to sports officials, the administration has been directed to submit all the bills so that Rajiv can make the payment. Says Lakshadweep Collector K.K. Sharma: “We made no special arrangements for the VIP holiday.” Adds Habeebullah: “My job was only to deposit the prime minister at Bangaram. After that, he wanted to be left on his own.”Questionable actions were, however, in evidence. India’s premier warship, INS Virat, was used to transport the Gandhis and moved in the Arabian Sea for 10 days. Its daily expenditure at sea is astronomical as the Virat travels with an entire retinue of escort ships. A submarine was also 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. Considerable expense was also incurred in setting up a special satellite link up at Agatti for the duration of the holiday.Rajiv Gandhi returning: Fond farewellBut on the positive side, the visit brought a lot of welcome publicity to Lakshadweep, which must indeed be one of the prettiest places anywhere in India. The administration of the Union territory is no w waiting for the direct windfall of the high – powered holiday: a rush of tourists. Says the MP from Lakshadweep, P.M. Sayeed: “All this publicity will do us a lot of good.”Some change is already visible. The Cochin office of the Lakshadweep administration says that tourist queries on January 8, for example, were five times more than the usual. Says Habeebullah: “We want tourism to become a full – fledged industry so that it generates economic activity in the island and absorbs the large number of educated unemployed.” Tourist inflow has, moreover, to be regulated in order to ensure fresh water availability and so that no damage is caused to the corals, the flora and the fauna.advertisementOn January 6, the idyllic holiday ended. Priyanka was the first to leave with her companions for Goa. The older group of foreigners followed. Then Amitabh and his family left. At 1.20 p.m. the same day, Rajiv boarded the naval helicopter with Rahul, en route to Amini Island where his first official function for 1988 was scheduled.Rahul was dropped off on the INS Virat so that he could take a ride with his father to Mangalore. Sonia and her relatives were the last to leave. She left Bangaram looking happy and well-rested. But by the time the helicopter landed at Cochin, the public mask had descended. She was back to being the, tense, stone-faced Mrs Prime Minister.Unlike Sonia, as he got off the naval helicopter, Rajiv looked cheerful as he spoke at Amini Island on January 6. The prime minister admitted that he had had a “wonderful holiday”. As he went about surveying erosion control sites and other development programmes, it seemed to be work as usual. Perhaps the only reminder of the holiday was carried under his sleeve: a sophisticated black chronometer, the waterproof watch that comes in handy for yachting and scuba diving.You’ve reached your article limitSign in to keep reading India TodaySign inSign up NOW to get:Premium content on Aaj Tak HD ChannelUnrestricted access to India Today magazine contentGet real-time alerts and all the news on your phone with the all-new India Today app. Download from Post your comment Do You Like This Story? Awesome! Now share the story Too bad. Tell us what you didn’t like in the comments Posted bysite admin
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