Security officials must remember that their duty is to protect the prime minister, if necessary, from himself.
This is an unedited cut of my weekly column in The Print (2018-2021)
Whatever be the origins of the ongoing controversy that is being played out in national public discourse over a purported plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it is important for everyone concerned to step back and stop treating the personal safety of the prime minister as yet another political football.
There is a fundamental tension involved in protecting a top political leader: the protectee wishes to live as normal a life as possible while the protectors seek to keep any potential threat as far away as possible. The tension gets all the more acute if the protectee is popular and thrives on popularity, not only chafing against the security cordon but actually breaching it, either spontaneously or otherwise. Since the political leader is the boss of his personal security officers, it is not easy for the latter to overrule him. That is where security protocols come in, providing a set of rules, dos and don’ts, for the leader and the people who protect him.
Prime Minister Modi has been breaching security protocols more often than his recent predecessors. Here are some examples. Months after assuming office, following his Independence Day speech, he moved into a children’s enclosure instead of getting into his car. After seeing US President Barack Obama off at the Republic Day celebrations in 2015, he walked into the audience enclosures to shake hands with people. He did that again this year. Last April in Surat, he stopped his convoy to meet a four-year-old girl. Campaigning in the Gujarat election last year, he travelled on a single-engine aircraft, piloted by a foreign national, in violation of the Special Protection Group’s “Blue Book”. A few weeks ago, a man somehow got through the security cordon in Santiniketan and managed to touch Modi’s feet.
For most of Modi’s supporters, he can do no wrong so they might not see anything amiss in all this. His detractors are likely to take the cynical view that all of these are stage-managed publicity stunts and, hence, not worth being concerned about. Either way, the topic has become more grist for flippant shouting matches on television and social media than a matter for serious public debate.
Let’s be clear: the personal security of the Prime Minister of India is a neither a partisan political issue, nor indeed one of Modi’s personal choice. After India became a nuclear weapons’ state, the Prime Minister’s security is not only a concern for national security but also of international security. Such is the national security imperative that there can be no gaps in nuclear command and control. Since the Modi government has followed the bad example of its predecessor in not making explicit the line of nuclear succession, the prime minister’s security has become all the more important.
Coming back to the uncovering of an assassination plot, there are too many loose ends and question marks in the Pune police narrative to suggest that it is perhaps a red herring. But that is not a matter for columnists and their readers to decide on national media. It is rightly a matter for serious, professional investigation, away from the media glare. The fact that it is being conducted through media leaks, hyperventilating television anchors and manufactured twitter hashtags is a shocking trivialisation of a grave issue. And those who think this is a clever political trick need to look up old Aesop, who has an appropriate fable for this.
The rest of my The Print columns are here
It does not matter whether or not breaches and security threats are genuine or stage-managed. Breaches are breaches, threats are threats, and must be treated with professional seriousness. Saying no to the boss is hard, and a lot harder if that boss is Narendra Modi. Even so, the heads of the Special Protection Group and the Intelligence Bureau must stand firm on this matter. They must remember that their duty is to protect the prime minister, if necessary, from himself.
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