Has Congress, which is India’s party of Freedom, come to such a pass that issues of national security are dealt with frivolously, with petty partisan considerations?

Shades of Mamata Banerjee were discernible in Charanjit Channi when he sought to pooh-pooh the egregious breach in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s security protocol on 5 January at Piareana, a desolate spot on the Moga-Ferozepur National Highway. No PM before him had been subjected to such security sabotage. And that too in a border district, where Pakistan’s deep state is perennially airdropping arms through drones. As on 28 May 2021 at Kalaikunda, where West Bengal’s the then Chief Secretary acted more as a minion of the Chief Minister than as a culpable all-India services officer, the state bureaucracy of Punjab on 5 January chose to wink while exigency of party politics rather than primacy of governance seemed to guide the Chief Minister of Punjab in the face of grave risk to national security. The two-member panel headed by Justice Mehtab Singh Gill, appointed by Channi, which is probing the incident may like to go into the role of Centre’s Intelligence Bureau, Punjab Police as well as delve into the question of conduct of all-India service officers in a state ruled by an Opposition party during the visit of Union government’s Constitutional authorities. The incumbent Chief Secretary of Punjab, who oversees the home department, being the second member of this probe, makes the efficacy of the exercise tenuous. Centre too has set up a probe headed by Secretary (Security): the very fact that even in a crucial matter like breach in PM’s security the Union and state governments are not acting in tandem throws up deeper questions on federalism.

Former president of Punjab Congress, Sunil Jakhar, exhibited statesmanship when he reacted to the incident: “It’s against Punjabiyat. A secure passage to PM to address BJP’s rally in Ferozepur should have been ensured. This is how democracy works.” Anandpur Sahib MP of the party, Manish Tewari, went a step further—he said “Political football” ought not to be played on the issue. (Tewari had lost his father Prof V.N. Tewari, a sitting MP, to terrorists’ bullets in April 1984.) This was in sharp contrast to the stand taken by CM of Punjab, the official spokesman of AICC, Randeep Surjewla and the Youth Congress chief, B.V. Srinivas, who had the gall to tweet: “Modiji how’s the josh?” Congress-related Twitter handles in fact rejoiced the stoppage of the PM’s cavalcade. Next morning the maverick Navjot Sidhu, the Punjab PCC chief, mocked the PM incident, calling it a “drama”. (Jakhar’s criticism was not in isolation—a day earlier senior Congress leader and legal eagle Abhishek Manu Sangvi had pointed out that his party was perhaps falling prey to China’s psycho-propaganda on the Galwan issue.) Has Congress, which is India’s party of Freedom, come to such a pass that issues of national security are dealt with frivolously, with petty partisan considerations? The tragic deaths of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, both victims of heinous terrorism, were loss to the nation mourned across political divide. On 6 January, party’s acting chief Sonia Gandhi called up Channi and expressed her concern and said PM’s security ought not to be taken lightly. The chief of principal Opposition party taking more than 24 hours to react by itself carries a tale.

5 January was less than a month after 8 December, when India lost its first Chief of Defence Staff in a helicopter crash—the report was out on 5 January, which pointed out human error as the possible cause. Sagacity rather than cocky demeanour has to be the guiding principle behind VVIP security. Many questions arise out of the Piareana incident. Advance security liaison between the Special Protection Group (SPG), tasked with PM’s security and state police must ensure safe access and ingress for the VVIP. In the given case, Punjab’s acting DGP has said that he had cautioned about inclement weather and farmers’ agitation. (Acting DGP, because ever since Channi became CM, Navjot Sidhu has been seeking to interfere in top government appointments, thereby creating ad hocism. Sidhu is on record to have praised an MLA at a recent rally for his propensity to make police officers “wet their pants”: Punjab Police thus functions in subnormal conditions. The state’s deputy CM, Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa, who holds the Home portfolio, has been having a running battle with Navjot Sidhu and even offered his portfolio to the former cricketer to express his angst: the home department of a sensitive border state thus is not in pink of health.)

Was Centre’s Intelligence Bureau (IB) up to date with the ground reality of this region, which borders Pakistan? If so, did they adequately caution SPG? The PM’s security is in three layers—inner ring of SPG commandos, an outer ring of paramilitary troops and a further outer ring of state police. Ensuring fair passage on the route is responsibility of state police. Punjab Police has enough reason to be extra cautious: In 1995, the CM of Punjab, Sardar Beant Singh, was blown up by a human bomb while he was in a cavalcade. In February 1965, former Punjab CM Pratap Singh Kairaon was waylaid and assassinated on the Grand Trunk Road while he was on his way to Delhi. Thus, Punjab Police ought to have in its manuals preventive protocol for security of VVIPs. IB may like to delve into its archives. They will find an incident in Bombay where the IB officer entrusted with Jawaharlal Nehru’s security, Gopal Dutt, had made the first PM change his plans at a public appearance as the sleuth sensed trouble. Ability to speak up in adversity is an intrinsic competence of a security adviser.

Was the PM obstructed due to the farm laws issue, or was there a deep political conspiracy? BJP has so far been a weakling in Punjab. Erstwhile Jan Sangh, since 1967, chose to be a junior partner of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD). BJP never contested more than 25 seats of a total 117 in the state. The outgoing Assembly has two BJP MLAs. After SAD parted ways, BJP under Modi went into an overdrive—it now has two allies and is the senior partner of the tie-up with former CM Amrinder Singh’s Punjab Lok Congress (PLC) and former SAD Union Minister S.S. Dhindsa’s Akali Dal (Samyukt), a breakaway Akali faction. Recently, a six-term Congress MLA from Ferozepur, Rana Gurmeet Sodhi, joined BJP. He is a descendant of Guru Nanak Dev and it is well known that he is heir to a sacred Pothi which belonged to the founder of the Sikh faith, which gives him a niche in Sikh religiosity. The Ferozepur rally would have been an occasion for him to show his strength in his new party and for the BJP to recognise the contribution of a new entrant from Congress: a possible prompt for those in the Congress who are upset with the Channi-Sidhu dispensation and are not inclined to join PLC.

Social media has clips suggesting that PM decided to abort the Ferozepur rally as attendance was “thin”—photographs of empty chairs at the rain soaked venue have been posted. Buses carrying BJP workers to the venue were blocked at various points by agitating farmers. The rally was held, it was addressed by Amrinder Singh and the state BJP chief. Union Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya, who had gone to Ferozepur as a hospital was to be inaugurated by PM, was tasked with the announcement that PM had returned due to inclement weather.

The 5 January incident raises profound questions. Weather reports are available days in advance—was a contingency plan mooted while planning the trip? In view of the 8 December tragedy, why was a helicopter ride envisaged on a rain-soaked day? Land route was the obvious choice for travel from the air base in Bathinda to the venue. Were two alternate routes planned, as per the Blue Book protocol?. A fast-moving cavalcade is the security drill worldwide for ensuring VVIPs are not subjected to sniper fire or drone attacks. A VVIP convoy at dead stop is vulnerable to sniper fire, drone attacks or being overwhelmed by a hostile mob. At Piareana, PM Modi was static for over 15 minutes on a flyover. A flyover can be assaulted by a bomb attack from below. Thus the Prime Minister was not mincing his words when he told Punjab officials before boarding his flight back to Delhi: “Apney CM ko thanks kehna ki mai Bathinda airport tak zinda laut paya”.