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Flying the leader, protocol and propriety

Harish Khare

Leaders of all political parties find themselves, from time to time, having to request the use of aircraft belonging to this or that industrialist or industrial house.

CONGRESS PRESIDENT Sonia Gandhi's use of an aircraft belonging to the Reliance Industries group has attracted attention and generated a controversy. The Bharatiya Janata Party has suggested that Ms. Gandhi is guilty of a gross impropriety.

On the other hand, the Congress leaders have dismissed the use of such aircraft as a routine affair and not confined to their party alone. (The Congress has said it paid Rs. 12 lakh in advance to the Reliance group for use of the plane by Ms. Gandhi.)

Not without precedent

Routine indeed. Highly reliable corporate sources indicate that another plane belonging to the Reliance group, a Gulfstream jet, was sent to Tel Aviv last week to bring Jaswant Singh, the Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, to enable him to help the BJP sort out the Jinnah affair.

In January 1994, Chief Election Commissioner T.N. Seshan used a Reliance aircraft to attend a religious function in Kancheepuram. This was the time when Mr. Seshan had cast himself in the role of a man out to clean the corrupt stables of Indian politics; and, suddenly, he was seen as using an aircraft belong to a corporate house to attend a private function.

Caught in the glare of unhelpful public attention, he demonstratively wrote out a cheque for Rs. 95,000.

Again, in June 1996, the day H.D. Deve Gowda won his vote of confidence as Prime Minister, he flew out to Bangalore in a Reliance executive jet.

It was argued on his behalf that it was not the first such instance.

In fact, leaders belonging to all political parties find themselves, from time to time, having to request the use of aircraft belonging to this or that industrialist or industrial house. Often, commercial flights are not operative or are inconvenient. Leaders value their time as much as think of their convenience. If their managers can requisition an aircraft, they see no ethical issues.

Those in government always find ways of using official aircraft for private or political purposes.

The Prime Minister is of course entitled to Indian Air Force aircraft, irrespective of the nature of the mission. When L.K. Advani was designated Deputy Prime Minister, the rules were amended to enable him to use the VVIP squadron.

Besides the Defence and Home Ministries, there are Ministries and "agencies" which have their own fleet; over the years, neat bureaucratic ways have been devised to enable political leaders to use these planes while maintaining the fiction that the aircraft is being used for "official" purpose. In recent years, Chief Ministers, too, have perfected the art of putting their governments' official planes at the disposal of their party leaders.

Still, situations arise where government planes are not available or workable. Then the party leaders have no hesitation requesting industrial houses for an aircraft. Reliance, the Tatas, Gautam Singhania, Rahul Bajaj, Vijay Mallya, the Jindals, and the Oswals are among those who regularly receive such requests and are invariably pleased to honour such requests.

The protocol is now well established, according to political managers. The request is made invariably for the top leader of a party and major political leaders are rarely refused the use of an aircraft; but, almost all pay an advance and later reimburse the balance.

Most political parties are in the same aircraft, it seems.

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