Congress MP Rahul Gandhi - mocked for sitting on cushioned seats during an anti-farm laws tractor rally in Punjab yesterday - hit back today by accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi of "wasting" thousands of crores on a set of two custom-made Boeing airplanes that "did not just have a cushion but a whole lot of luxury beds for his comfort".
Questioning the need to spend such a large amount of money "when China is at our borders" and the government is rushing weapons, ammunition, fuel, food and winter essentials to eastern Ladakh - in its biggest operation in decades - Mr Gandhi suggested PM Modi wanted the planes - one of which is Air India One - because "his friend Donald Trump (the United States President) has one (Air Force One)".
"Why don't you question them about this? It is strange that nobody is asking about the Boeing 777 purchased for this whopping amount but everyone is quick to point to a gaddi (cushion)," Mr Gandhi told reporters in Punjab's Patiala today - the second day of this three-day rally.
"On the one, Prime Minister Modi has bought two aircraft worth Rs 8,000 crore. On the other, China is at our borders and our security forces are braving harsh winters to protect (us)," he said, adding that the cushions had been placed there by well-wishers.
Mr Gandhi's comment triggered an immediate response from sources in the government, which pointed out that the procurement process for the planes - one of which is for VVIPs - was started under the Congress-led UPA administration and said it had simply concluded the purchase.
Mr Gandhi has been a vocal critic of the Narendra Modi government on several fronts, including its handling of the China border row; this morning the Congress leader declared the PM is "only obsessed with his image" and had given away 1,200 square km of territory to China.
Later in the evening sources defended the government's purchase of the planes - initiated in 2011 - and said Mr Gandhi was entitled to "disregard for the UPA government" but not to his own facts.
The sources clarified that the planes, which belong to the Indian Air Force, are not "the PM's aircrafts" but were meant for use by other VVIPs as well.
The process of acquisition began in 2011, the sources said, adding that by the following year an inter-ministerial group had recommended the Boeing 777 after ten meetings. The purchase order was transferred to the Air Force in 2013 and completed this year, the sources explained.
The planes, they further said, were meant to replace those currently in use. These are over 25 years old, "incapable of long, trans-Atlantic flights... and are also fuel guzzlers of epic proportions".
One of the planes in question - Air India One - landed at Delhi airport last week after its initial delivery was delayed by the Covid pandemic. It is outfitted with state-of-the-art missile defence systems and Self-Protection Suites (SPS), technology for which was sold by the US for $190 million.
Overall, the planes cost Rs 8,400 crore, according to news agency PTI.
Currently, the President, Vice President and Prime Minister fly on Air India's B747 planes that are used for commercial traffic when not flying them.
With input from PTI