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Chandigarh: Hours before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s election rally in Punjab’s border town of Ferozepur on Wednesday, #GobackModi began trending on Twitter.
Several farmers unions had gathered in and around Ferozepur to protest against Modi’s visit, refreshing memories of the farmers’ movement that forced Modi to repeal the farm laws last November.
Modi’s rally was to have been the first in the state ahead of the Punjab assembly election and a significant one, considering that Punjab had been the epicentre of one of the biggest public movements in recent times.
The inauguration of projects worth Rs 42,000 including a satellite centre of the PGIMER, two hospitals and highway projects was part of Modi’s Punjab itinerary. A 30-acre venue on the Ferozepur-Moga Road was earmarked for the rally. It had a sitting capacity of nearly a lakh.
However, this rally has turned into the subject of a major political controversy between BJP and Congress after the prime minister cancelled his programme and returned to Delhi without addressing the rally or inaugurating the projects.
There was confusion all around once the announcement was first made by Union Minister Masukh Mandaviya from the rally stage just after BJP’s new ally, Captain Amarinder Singh, addressed the gathering and blamed his former party, Congress, with “playing” with the security of the border state.
Soon after, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued a statement, alleging a major security breach in the PM’s cavalcade which it claimed had forced Modi to return. The MHA said that the PM landed in Bathinda on Wednesday at around noon. From there, he was to go to the National Martyrs Memorial at Hussainiwala by helicopter and then to the rally venue.
Due to rain and poor visibility, the PM waited for about 20 minutes for the weather to clear. When the weather didn’t improve, it was decided that he would visit the National Martyrs Memorial via road, which would take more than two hours.
He proceeded to travel by road after necessary confirmation of security arrangements was given by the DGP Punjab Police. Around 30 km away from National Martyrs Memorial in Hussainiwala, when the PM’s convoy reached a flyover, it was found that the road was blocked by some protesters. “The PM was stuck on a flyover for 15-20 minutes. This was a major lapse in the security of the PM,” the MHA statement said.
It added that after this security lapse, it was decided the PM would head back to Bathinda airport.
BJP on offensive, Congress hits back
From the PM’s barb on the Punjab CM to BJP’s national president J.P. Nadda levelling charges to MHA seeking an urgent report from the Punjab government, BJP has been on the offensive over this visit.
As per an ANI report, the PM before leaving for Delhi from Bathinda airport told Punjab government officials present there to thank Punjab CM Charanjit Singh Channi for the fact that he was able to “return to Bathinda airport alive.”
Even as protesting farmers stopped BJP supporters from heading towards the PM’s rally venue and later, images of empty chairs at the venue went viral on social media, Nadda, in a series of tweets, alleged that the state police was instructed to prevent people from attending the rally.
The state police was instructed to prevent people from attending the rally. Large number of buses were stranded because of the high-handedness of the police & connivance with protestors.
— Jagat Prakash Nadda (@JPNadda) January 5, 2022
To make matters worse, CM Channi refused to get on the phone to either address the matter or solve it.
The tactics used by the Congress government in Punjab would pain any one who believes in democratic principles.
— Jagat Prakash Nadda (@JPNadda) January 5, 2022
He added that this incident was also a big security lapse. “Protestors were given access to the Prime Minister’s route while the Punjab CS and DGP gave assurances to SPG that the route is clear,” he tweeted.
“It is sad that the PM’s visit to launch development projects worth thousands of crores for Punjab was disrupted,” he added.
On the other hand, Amarinder Singh too launched an attack on the Punjab government, saying, “When you can’t provide smooth passage to the PM of the country and that too just 10 km from the Pakistan border, you have no right to stay in office.”
Union Minister Smriti Irani addressed the media in Delhi in the evening. “Never before in the history of our country, has a state government knowingly constructed a scenario where the PM will be brought to harm. We know Congress hates Modi but today they tried to harm the PM of India,” she said.
On the other hand, Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar told the media that the Punjab government should take responsibility of the incident.
‘Only 700 people’
On the other hand, the Congress government in Punjab has been denying any conspiracy. A minister in the Channi government, Raj Kumar Veraka said, “There were no shortcomings in the security arrangements during the PM’s visit to Punjab today. The accusations of a security breach are baseless. The truth is that BJP’s rally was a flop show. When PM got to know this, he decided to return.”
In an interview to a local media, CM Channi said, “As many as 70,000 chairs were put up for the PM’s rally, but only 700 people turned up.”
“The farmers have been agitating peacefully for the last one year. I’m not going to lathi-charge at farmers. We spoke to farmers the whole last night after which they ended their agitation. Today, suddenly some agitators gathered in Ferozepur district,” Channi said later in press conference.
“If there were any security lapses during PM Modi’s visit today, then we will conduct an inquiry. There was no danger to the prime minister,” Channi said, while adding, “I express regret that PM Modi had to return during his visit to Ferozepur district today. We respect our PM.”
Congress’s spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewal later said that BJP was unnecessarily making a fuss of the PM’s visit.
“It was SPG’s responsibility to assess the whole security of the PM. If PM’s route was changed at the last minute, SPG must answer why it did not assess the security arrangements properly before the PM’s road visit to the rally ground from Bathinda. I want to ask whether there was any threat to the PM’s cavalcade. Was anyone near his cavalcade and did that compromise his security? BJP is politicising the matter for vested political gains,” said Surjewala.
He added that all protocols were followed during his visit. “Neither was there any security breach nor will we let such a thing happen in the future. He is our PM too. If chairs are empty in his rally, the responsibility for that should not be on us,” he said.
Internal rifts within Punjab Congress have also had a chance to emerge amidst this.
Former Punjab Congress committee chief Sunil Jakhar issued a statement calling the incident one that goes “against Panjabiyat.”
“A secure passage for the Prime Minister of India to address BJP’s political rally in Ferozpur should have been ensured. That’s how the democracy works,” he said.
However Punjab cabinet minister Pargat Singh disagreed with Jakhar. He tweeted that the real reason behind Modi’s absence from the Ferozepur rally was the “total boycott by the people of Punjab.”
Farmers’ unions react
There were various reactions from farmers’ unions over the cancellation of Modi’s rally in Punjab.
Senior SKM leader Dr Darshan Pal Singh told The Wire that unions had no plans to sabotage PMs’ rally.
“We were just protesting in different districts against Modi just because he was yet to fulfil other promises he made when SKM suspended the farm protest outside Delhi borders last month. Naturally, mobilisation in and around Ferozepur was higher. But we had no plans to stop his cavalcade or hamper their rally. We were protesting from outside. What I gathered from different sources, it appeared to be an intelligence failure,” said Darshan Pal.
He said the initial plan of Modi was to reach Ferozepur by air and farmers had been sitting in on different routes since morning.
“If anyone is responsible it is security agencies whether of Punjab government or the Union,” said Pal.
A day before the rally, three approach roads leading to the venue in Ferozepur were blocked by members of the Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Committee (KMSC). These routes were very important for BJP supporters coming from Majha areas of Amritsar and other districts besides nearby areas in Rajasthan.
Its convenor Satnam Singh Pannu told The Wire that they had staged the protest as the prime minister was still silent on forming a committee on MSP, removal of Union minister Ajay Mishra over the Lakhimpuri Kheri incident and other promises it made to the farmers when they suspended the protest outside Delhi borders on December 9.
“Later, Union Minister Gajendra Shekhawat held a meeting with us and assured us that the MSP committee will be formed by January 15. Then we decided to open the routes. We had no idea who staged a protest on the route where the PM’s cavalcade was travelling,” he said.
Various other unions, meanwhile, celebrated Modi’s cancellation of the rally. Rajinder Singh Deepsingh Wala of Kirti Kisan Union released a video message conveying that the move was a big setback for Modi.
“It was people’s anger against his policies that led to the cancellation of his rally. It was a clear message to Modi that the people of Punjab had not forgotten the death of over 700 farmers during the farm movement,” said Rajinder.