From Sea-Plane Ride to Berlin Station Visit, Modi Has Played Fast and Loose With Security Drill

While a post-mortem of the Punjab fiasco must be carried out, this isn't the first breach to have taken place. Former SPG personnel say Modi loves to call the shots, often riding roughshod over the advice of his security detail.

Listen to this article:

New Delhi: As the Supreme Court wades into the controversy surrounding the alleged breach of Prime Minister Modi’s security in Punjab and sparks fly between the Union and state governments, many in the security establishment are wondering why other breaches of prime ministerial security protocol – mainly involving the present incumbent – never attracted the same political or media attention

Former SPG personnel say it is Narendra Modi who loves to call the shots, often riding roughshod over the advice of his security detail. The one example they uniformly cite is when he insisted on flying in a single engine sea plane with a foreign pilot who had no security clearance – a strict no-no as per the Special Protection Group’s blue book.

Denied permission for a road show during the 2017 assembly elections, the prime minister decided to travel on a sea plane from the Sabarmati riverfront to Dharoi Dam in Mehsana district. At the time and subsequently, officials, both retired and serving, had no explanation for how and why Modi was allowed to fly in a single engine plane.

However, no heads rolled following the sea plane episode. The reason, says a former Union home secretary, is because “violations of the blue book are usually at the behest of the VVIP and they happen on a monthly basis. These violations are brought to the notice of the PMO and the PM by the SPG and left at that.”

The SPG’s security bible – which takes its name from the light cobalt blue colour of its cover – is a 200 page set of instructions and annexures with the minutest detail of the premier’s security. Last updated 18 years ago, a fresh draft is awaiting Ministry of Home Affairs approval. In keeping with the changing times, the updated blue book will also incorporate changes brought about in the PM’s security following the 2008 Mumbai terror attack.

There have also been times when the SPG has been forced to put its foot down in the face of the prime minister’s demands. During one particular foreign visit he made in the first year of his tenure as PM – The Wire is withholding the name of the country to protect its sources – Modi decided he wanted to stop his convoy and mingle with the crowds. However, the intelligence agencies had already picked up chatter indicating there could be an attempt to assassinate the PM from “close quarters” and that the danger was “clear and present”. When Modi said he wanted to step out, the head of the close proximity team travelling in the PM’s car insisted on consulting the SPG chief who was in the car behind. The instructions of the SPG chief were clear: Under no circumstances was the convoy to make an unscheduled stop. If this order was disobeyed, the officer would be dismissed from service on the spot for disobeying government orders. The convoy carried on. It was the SPG chief who later faced the music.

It’s not just the SPG that has been forced to rebuff Modi’s demands. In 2015, during a visit to Germany, Modi insisted on visiting Berlin railway station. He said he wanted to study the workings of a modern rail terminal. Given the footfall and the public nature of the station, German security turned down the request, saying it would be impossible for them to sanitise a place like that. Despite this, the prime minister had his way and undertook the visit, presenting the SPG with a huge challenge.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi visiting a railway station in Berlin in 2015. Photo: PTI

Security personnel also say that the prime minister’s penchant for changing the security drill has sometimes extended to visiting dignitaries as well. In 2017, Japanese security was aghast when told that their prime minister, Shinzo Abe, would have to travel in an open jeep during a visit to the Sabarmati Ashram in Gujarat. Ultimately, the Japanese side acquiesced, and Abe travelled alongside Modi in an open Gypsy bedecked with marigold. The Japan PM in Indian attire completed the desired photo-op.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie Abe ride an open vehicle during their roadshow in Ahmedabad in 2017. Photo: PTI

But there have been instances when the security arrangements of Modi’s predecessors were also found wanting. In 2012, the advanced security liaison of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was leaked before his visit to Thailand because the communication was sent via an unsecured line. This breach was brought to light by the NTRO during a cyber audit of the SPG. This reporter has viewed the letter written by the NTRO to the SPG.

Punjab post-mortem will reveal deviations from blue book

While Prime Minister Modi’s motorcade has been held up before – in Noida and in Delhi – without generating hype about a threat to his life, a post-mortem of the Punjab incident is needed to plug systemic gaps and ensure there is no repeat anywhere else in the country, say experts.

Former CIC DP Sinha, who as an Intelligence Bureau official had attended advanced security liaison meetings all across the country for the past three decades, says, “Everything is laid out in the blue book. And if there has been a security violation, then too responsibility has to be fixed as per the blue book. When it is the prime minister that we are talking of, nothing is left to chance.”

But there is a lot more in the blue book that both the Union government and the state government need to answer for.

For instance, as per the advance security liaisoning (ASL), were inputs not taken from the meteorological department about the possibility of rain? If the weather turned inclement and a chopper ride to the venue was not possible, then was the contingency route not decided as per the ASL? Was this contingency route the one the PM took?

Did the SPG really allow the prime minister to travel on an unsanitised route for two hours without security clearance? As per the blue book, the SPG doesn’t move till the state police concerned gives the go ahead that the entire route is sanitised.

Screengrab from the video showing BJP workers near Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cavalcade on January 5 on the Moga-Ferozepur highway in Punjab. Photo: Twitter.

In the Supreme Court, solicitor general Tushar Mehta tried to lay blame at the state’s door step. “Whenever the PM’s cavalcade moves on the road, it is always the DG of the state who is consulted and only with his sanction does it proceed.” Mehta says the “DG gave the green signal. He did not say there is a blockade.” If this is so, then the DGP needs to answer. And, in turn, so do his subordinates, who would have handled specific stretches.

But the prime ministerial cavalcade includes a warning car and a pilot car. Wouldn’t the first car have noticed a crowd and conveyed a message immediately? Why, then, did the cavalcade stop so close to the site of the blockage, with the traffic jam caused by the protestors within easy visual range? If it apprehended a threat, should the SPG not have made an immediate U-turn to put some distance between the cavalcade and traffic jam ahead, instead of waiting for 20 minutes?

Mehta admitted in court that the warning car was about 500-700 metres ahead of the convoy but did not tell the court whether the convoy was alerted by the pilot.  He instead said, “the motorcade came to know only when it was on the flyover”. And then proceeded to blame the waiting policemen who he says were enjoying tea. “They did not alert the warning car that there was a blockade!”

It is also not clear why civilians had gathered in such numbers on either side of the carriageway. The bifurcated four lane highway had only one carriageway closed to traffic while the other had motorists and BJP flag bearers shouting slogans. Says a former IB official, “Traffic is allowed on the opposite side depending on the threat perception, proximity to the border and traffic density. Only the ASL will make clear what was decided but normally in a border state both carriageways should be stopped. Here, it seems, one side was left open to allow BJP supporters to reach the site of the prime minister’s planned rally.

But once the convoy made a U turn and started travelling on the wrong side of the road, traffic on the route should have been stopped by the state police till the convoy made it to the right carriageway which was not done. “This entire fiasco is unprecedented,” say experts.