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.