Rahul Gandhi’s televised train journey to and from Ludhiana has thrown up serious questions about limits to which high-risk leaders can stretch austerity in public life.
There’s palpable alarm in security and Congress circles that the train Rahul took on his return journey Tuesday night came under a hail of stones. Some party leaders are believed to have taken up the matter with the director of the special protection group (SPG), which is responsible for Rahul’s security, and also Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who herself flew economy class on Monday to Mumbai.
A source confirmed to HT a review of the mother and son’s travel programmes with emphasis on foolproof security was being undertaken. “We are committed to austerity measures but security of SPG protectees is of paramount importance,” said Congress spokesperson Jayanthi Natarajan.
The SPG Act is unambiguous about its director’s powers and responsibilities to safeguard those whose security it handles, including incumbent and former prime ministers and their families. The SPG chief can follow precedents set by his predecessors in the elite force created after Indira Gandhi’s 1984 assassination by her security guards.
In December 1989, the secretary (security) successfully reasoned with a difficult V.P. Singh, then PM, against taking commercial Indian Airlines’ flights for domestic travel.
“Austerity cannot be at the expense of security,” argued Shyamal Dutta, former SPG chief and director of intelligence bureau, on phone from Kolkata.
“There was too much risk in Rahul boarding a train amid so much publicity,” Dutta said.
Prior information about planned journeys compromises the surprise element that is the key to security, he said, amid indications that the media got a whiff of Rahul’s travel plans from the Ludhiana police and local Youth Congress leaders.
Dutta recalled how he tried dissuading Deve Gowda from taking a commercial flight to Bangalore on becoming PM in 1996. “I had a serious argument with him. The PM had his way but he was made to keep his austerity plan under wraps till he reached Bangalore,” he said.
Two other former IB directors Ajit Doval and Arun Bhagat said land-travel is riskier than taking a commercial flight that can be secured for the VIP. “Sabotage on land is much easier than in the air because it entails sanitising the entire route which is neither cost effective, nor physically possible,” said Doval.
Doval’s threat perception was hard to miss: Rahul’s train was vulnerable to sabotage from under a bridge, a culvert, the tracks or a level crossing along the entire route. And the solution he offered was simple: if unavoidable, such journeys must be secret, sporadic and for short distances.