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Sunday, September 27, 2009

Rahul Gandhi’s flying visit to Tamil Nadu cost over Rs.1 crore

CHENNAI: “As a politician, you have a duty to be austere,” Rahul Gandhi told reporters here last week during his tour of Tamil Nadu. But the travel bill the Congress general secretary toted up during his three-day visit down south ran to seven figures, not exactly a sum the word “austerity” conjures up. At about Rs.1.5 lakh an hour for a helicopter, and Rs. 1.1 lakh an hour for the Beechcraft aircraft that Mr. Gandhi used for most of the long haul, his Tamil Nadu darshan would have cost the Indian National Youth Congress over Rs. 1 crore in helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft hire charges, The Hindu has established.

The 2006 Beechcraft King Air 350 aircraft, operated by the New Delhi-based Air Charter Services Private Limited, has a 10 per cent plus service charge too. The crew in both instances need to be looked after by the persons hiring the aircraft. Added to this is the expense of the SPG, which tailed the Pawan Hans helicopter in an Army helicopter.

Mr. Gandhi, who was on a day-long whirlwind tour to southern districts on September 8, used a Pawan Hans helicopter from Thiruvananthapuram after arriving there in the Beechcraft (VT-ACD).

On his way back from Coimbatore, Mr. Gandhi took an eight-seater Falcon 2000 aircraft to New Delhi. It belonged to the Mumbai-based TajAir. According to the Taj website ( http://www.tajaironline.com), a New Delhi-Coimbatore one-way trip costs Rs. 20,31,250. “All flights originate from Mumbai. Thus, the fare is calculated ex-Mumbai and back,” the website explains.

The Congress leader hopped from Thiruvananthapuram to Nagercoil to Tirunelveli to Virudhunagar and to the Madurai Kamaraj University on the first day. After an overnight halt at the Circuit House in Madurai, he left for Thanjavur by the Beechcraft on day two. According to back-of-the-envelope calculations by airport sources, with the Thiruvananthapuram-Madurai trip and the overnight halt of the helicopter, the total cost incurred would be close to Rs. 15 lakh.

On day two, he landed at the Indian Air Force strip in Thanjavur. After meeting people and Youth Congress workers, he left by the same aircraft for Puducherry where he met PCC office-bearers. He hopped on to a helicopter for Villupuram and Vellore. Later in the day, after his engagements at Vellore, he flew into the nearby Naval Air Station in Arakkonam, INS Rajali, in a helicopter, before taking the B-350 to Chennai.

From Chennai to Hosur, Mr. Gandhi travelled by the same B-350. A TNCC source said the party paid Rs. 7,500 for landing and parking to Taneja Aerospace for the use of a private airstrip at Hosur. Mr. Gandhi took the same aircraft to Salem and from there to Coimbatore.
Foolproof security

Salem airport authorities said all charges for the landing and ground handling at Salem were paid in Chennai itself, as the Salem airport did not have normal operations. The same aircraft was used to reach Coimbatore. For landing, parking, and route navigation, the Coimbatore airport collected a total of Rs. 6,800 from both the operators. Besides, Rs. 1,500 was paid to a private firm for ground handling.

A senior police official, when contacted, said Mr. Gandhi’s movement by road was restricted to the extent possible in Tamil Nadu. Foolproof security arrangements were imperative in the backdrop of heightened threat to the VVIP perceived by Central and State intelligence agencies.

Besides having in place a three-tier security shield for Rahul Gandhi, who is also protected by the elite Special Protection Group (SPG), the State police chalked out an elaborate scheme for his protection based on specific inputs.

Citing reports of the Ministry of Home Affairs, the police official said a handful of top Sikh militants and cadres of the Lashkar-e-Taiba met at an undisclosed destination in Pakistan recently and allegedly decided to target Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Bharatiya Janata Party leader L.K. Advani, and Mr. Gandhi.

Further, reports of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) indicated the movement of a suspected Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam cadre and a sympathiser along the south-eastern coast of Tamil Nadu.

The last communication was intercepted in the last week of March 2009 and it appeared the suspects were organising the movement of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees. “Reports in a section of the media that appeared in the United Kingdom alleged that India had extended military support to Sri Lanka in the war against the LTTE. The resentment has surfaced as hostility to Rahul Gandhi,” the official added.

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