Your understanding of what exactly happened with the prime minister’s convoy on the highway between Bathinda and Ferozepur in Punjab probably depends on which side of the political divide you are on. There are facts, pictures, amateur videos, charges and counter-charges ranging from an assassination plan to shamming because of poor crowds at the rally. And then, there are the inevitable conspiracy theories.
Here are the facts that we know, or that we think we know. First, there was a massive, unforgivable failure of security. It isn’t just that a security protocol so well set for decades as to be carved in stone and ossified by now was broken. It is also what followed once the prime minister’s vehicle was stranded on a flyover.
It was parked for several fraught minutes next to the side parapet, fully exposed to that side. To anybody who might have been on the ground, in a vehicle or on a tree. Normally, it should’ve been in the middle of the highway covered on all sides by other SPG vehicles. A prime minister won’t be issued a challan for that. Further, while we see SPG men, sharply turned out as usual, along the flanks, there simply wasn’t enough cover in front.
The first protocol breach was that the highway wasn’t ‘sanitised’, as is the drill for decades now. It is the job of the state police. Did the Punjab Police not know that the prime minister was taking this route? If they did, and yet did not sanitise the road, usually done by posting policemen on both sides at short distances, it is incompetence to begin with. If they didn’t even know that the prime minister was driving to Hussainiwala instead of flying, this isn’t just incompetence. This is being asleep on the job.
Now, we know the brass of the ‘janbaz Punjab Pleece’ (dare-devil Punjab Police), as they’d say in those parts, like their siesta. But this was still early in the day, and a prime ministerial ‘movement’ was taking place. Finally, if they knew about the convoy, but protesters had already collected, as is being said in their defence, somebody needs to find out if that was promptly conveyed to the SPG?
The answer to this will point us to which conspiracy theory could be more plausible: The first is the BJP’s that the Congress government in the state was deliberately exposing the prime minister to an assassination attempt. The second is the Congress’, that minutes earlier, the prime minister was told that the crowd at the rally he was headed for was rather sparse (which it was), so he was too embarrassed to go, and had a drama staged instead.
Are we making too many presumptions here? No less than a full cabinet minister of this government, Giriraj Singh, has said there was a plot to assassinate Narendra Modi either using a high-calibre rifle or a drone. The prime minister also visited Rashtrapati Bhavan to appraise the President, who expressed his concern in a tweet. And from the other side, both Chief Minister Channi and PCC chief Navjot Singh Sidhu have called it a play-acted sham because of poor crowds.
Based on facts we can also say that this was a national embarrassment. That no modern nation, least of all, India with its history of political assassinations, leaves its chief executive exposed like this. But also that there was no assassination planned. Even an intending assassin would have to be frightfully fortunate to be loitering exactly in the same place at that moment.
The assumption we can draw from this, therefore, is that what we saw was an incredible security failure on the part of both the state police and the SPG. It underlines the fact that over time, all security protocols become mechanical, and the people following them robotic. Change and improvement is constantly needed. We also see amateur videos where SPG men open the doors of the prime minister’s car more than once. Someone, an admirer, is even allowed to present what looks like an ornate, ceremonial cap to him. This isn’t from any VVIP security Blue Book. The conclusion is the old one: Never waste time looking for conspiracies for what can be fully explained as incompetence. In this case, by both the state police and the SPG.
Politicians, especially those in power, are the most endangered people. Particularly in a country like ours, with a history of political assassinations. Nathuram Godse provided a shattering prelude to the foundation of the Republic by murdering Mahatma Gandhi. In early 1965, a few months after his resignation, Punjab’s almighty chief minister Pratap Singh Kairon was assassinated on the Grand Trunk Road near Sonipat in what is now Haryana. Punjab, in fact, has the dubious distinction of seeing two chief ministers, former or serving, assassinated. Beant Singh, in 1995, was the second.
Bihar saw Union railway minister Lalit Narayan Mishra bombed at Samastipur in 1975. The decade of the 1980s was the most perilous for public figures in our country as several public figures were consumed by terrorism. These included Indira Gandhi in 1984 and Rajiv Gandhi just after the new decade got underway, in 1991.
Rajiv Gandhi had already had a history of three attempts on his life as prime minister — Washington on 14 May 1985, Leicester in June 1986, and on Gandhi Jayanti (2 October) the same year, a somewhat farcical attempt at Rajghat as Rajiv emerged after his prayers on Bapu’s samadhi. Three shots rang out. The police hauled down Karamjit Singh from a tree with his home-made weapon (cruder than your usual heartland ‘katta’). It didn’t look like it could be fired anywhere at a specific target.
The next, however, was anything but farcical. On 30 July 1987, just after ‘persuading’ both J.R. Jayawardene and Vellupillai Prabhakaran, Rajiv Gandhi was inspecting a guard of honour in Colombo when a naval rating Wijemuni Vijitha Rohana de Silva, a member of the parading contingent, swung his rifle at him, somewhat reminiscent of Anwar Saadat’s assassination in 1981.
Mrs Gandhi’s assassination had led to the formation of Special Protection Group (SPG), the Indian equivalent of the US Secret Service. Rajiv Gandhi was their first ward, and with each attempt on him, they improved their protocols. The result was a very, very formidable, world-class VVIP security force. The reason the Gandhi family believes that the V.P. Singh and Chandra Shekhar governments erred in denying him the SPG.
But, how safe is the presumption that just the continued presence of SPG would have saved Rajiv from that young woman with a smile on her face and a bomb belt around her waist? A day before Sriperumbudur, Aroon Purie, editor of India Today, where I then worked, and I, caught up with Rajiv campaigning in Varanasi. We were aghast seeing him mix freely with the crowds. Many threw garlands and bouquets at him as he appeared on the stage at a late-night rally. And he, instead of ducking, joyously caught some and tossed them back.
We had also caught up with Rajiv at a pit stop on a tiny dhaba on the road between Buxar in Bihar and Varanasi. I was too junior to have known him, but Aroon knew him from school and raised the question over his being rather cavalier with his security. He said something like his feedback was that he had become too distant from people. So, he had to reach out, never mind the warnings.
The obvious conclusion, therefore, is that public figures, especially in campaign seasons, have that irresistible urge to be seen with people. Would an SPG posse have prevailed upon him not to expose himself to unsanitised ‘fans’ in Sriperumbudur? The answer would be, only if the officers in charge were professional enough not to be overawed by the stature of their protectee. You have to force the boss to listen.
Jumping to the other side of this fence, of course there are political farces and dramas in the name of assassination attempts too. The most famous — or infamous — one in our history is now forgotten. On 15 March 1977, a day before polling in an election where the Congress faced its first-ever defeat, a story broke that somebody had fired three rounds at Sanjay Gandhi’s car near Amethi. Nobody was ever caught, not even a serious enough complaint made, most people laughed. A cheap trick that failed. So that kind of stuff also happens.
Coming back to our stranded PM on that highway flyover, a security failure has to be accepted and correctives must be put in. Any prime minister’s security can’t be an issue for political polarisation. With the information available yet, I shall close this argument with a final point. That in this event, it is the Indian Air Force (IAF) that showed true professionalism, telling the boss it wasn’t going to fly in that weather. You can see what professionalism and moral courage it takes to say no to your prime minister. Only things like that can keep him safe.