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Cong does damage control on Sonia visit
Anita Katyal
Tribune News Service

New Delhi, June 16
After the BJP raised a furore over Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s Russia visit, the Congress today went into damage control mode as it aggressively rubbished all Opposition charges.

The Congress brazened out the allegation on the charter of a Reliance aircraft for Mrs. Gandhi’s journey, stating BJP leaders, including Mr. Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Mr. Jaswant Singh, also used aircraft belonging to private companies. It dismissed the charge that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had breached protocol by going to see her off on the ground that he was not a

prisoner of protocol and that he was free to make independent decisions.

The party also saw nothing wrong about External Affairs Minister K.Natwar Singh accompanying Mrs. Gandhi on this visit, stating it was only appropriate that the minister should be present during the UPA Chairperson’s high-level talks with the Russian President.

Unable to come up with an adequate response yesterday, Congress spokesperson Anand Sharma bristled with anger today as he took on the BJP, saying the Opposition was raising these issues merely to deflect attention from the ongoing churning in the Sangh Parivar.

Mr Sharma maintained there was nothing controversial or objectionable about chartering a private aircraft for Mrs. Gandhi’s visit as this is an established practice which has been going on for years. He said a private aircraft or helicopter was hired each time Mrs. Gandhi travelled, adding that the choice of the airplane depended on the availability of the craft and security clearances. “The aircraft could belong to Essar, Raymonds, Jindals or Reliance,” he said, adding that it is only a coincidence that this time it is a Reliance airplane.

In any case, he said, the Congress party had made the requisite payment for the chartered flight which again is standard practice. Mr. Sharma said the Congress had made an advance payment of Rs.12 lakh on June 2 for this aircraft. AICC treasurer Motilal Vora confirmed making the payment, stating this is a routine affair.

Turning the tables on the BJP, Mr. Sharma said its leaders also travelled by chartered flights. “These are certainly not owned by the BJP but belong to private companies,” Mr. Sharma pointed out.

Mr. Sharma instead charged the BJP for unnecessarily nitpicking about Mrs. Gandhi’s visit to Russia as it would only consolidate bilateral relations between the two countries.

He said Mrs. Gandhi had gone to Russia in her capacity as UPA chairperson at the invitation of Russian President Putin, who had not only hosted a special lunch for her but had personally escorted Mrs. Gandhi to Peterhoff, an architechtural wonder in St. Petersberg.

Mr. Sharma said Russia is India’s time-tested friend and Mrs. Gandhi’s visit would further enhance this relationship.

Instead of welcoming this development, he said, the BJP had chosen to criticise it, stating this spoke volumes of its desperation.

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