PM’s security breach: Did the SPG approve the 122-Km road ride by the PM?

The elite Special Protection Group (SPG), a 3000-strong unit of commandoes are in charge of the PM's security. It finds itself in the eye of a storm after the alleged security breach in Punjab

PM Modi's cavalcade
PM Modi's cavalcade

Shalini Sahay

In dark suits and sunglasses, armed with concealed handguns and earpieces, the elite personnel of the Special Protection Group (SPG) are familiar figures around the Prime Minister. While the force was first raised in 1985 to protect the Prime Minister and former Prime Ministers and their family, following an amendment in rules in 2019 the SPG now protects only the PM.

The SPG, a special 3000-strong force of elite commandos recruited from the best in central paramilitary organisations, received a budgetary allocation of Rs.592 crore in 2020-21. The budget has almost doubled since 2014-15 when SPG’s annual budget was Rs.289 crore and the SPG was protecting the PM and three members of the Nehru-Gandhi family.

The sharp rise in budgetary allocation for the SPG in 2019-20 to Rs.535 crore from Rs.385 crore in 2018-19 was justified on the ground that being an election year, all the four protectees would be travelling a lot more.

At Rs.592 crore (the annual budget of the SPG in 2021-22), the cost of protecting the Prime Minister works out to approximately Rs. 1.62 crore a day or about Rs 6.75 lakh an hour

The elite force finds itself in the eye of a storm following the Prime Minister’s alleged quip that he was lucky to have returned alive to the Bathinda airstrip on Wednesday. While the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Bharatiya Janata Party both accused the Punjab Government and Punjab Police for jeopardizing the PM’s life, questions have been raised about the role of the SPG because of its reputation and the sole responsibility to protect the PM.

The PM’s security and travel plans follow rules laid down in the Blue Book and covers all possible contingencies. A SPG advance team always travels days before the PM’s visit to the destination to supervise routes and security plans. SPG with inputs from the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the state police decides on alternative routes, which are sanitized, and finalizes plans to evacuate the prime minister, if necessary.

MHA, SPG, IB, R&AW, MI and Punjab Police were privy to travel plans of the PM. Did they all agree to the two-hour long road-trip from Bathinda to Hussainiwala, 122 Kms away? If the road trip was decided due to inclement weather (the PM was due to fly in a helicopter), why blame the police for not sanitising the route?

The Blue Book lays down that the security detail, motorcade, who would be allowed in the motorcade etc. are decided as part of the Advanced Security Liaison (ASL). The minute details are then published and distributed on ‘need to know’ basis. Sources claimed that on occasions ASL booklets have run into a hundred pages and more.

In view of this elaborate security ring around the PM, there is surprise at the ‘security breach’ alleged during the PM’s visit to Punjab on Wednesday, January 5. The MHA, to which the SPG and IB report, was the first to flag the ‘security breach’. Union Home Minister Amit Shah, BJP president J.P. Nadda and Union Minister Smriti Irani were also quick to blame the Punjab Government and allege a conspiracy to ‘physically harm’ the Prime Minister.

Eyebrows have been raised over the decision to allow a 122-kilometre journey by road that the PM undertook ‘at the last minute’. How much time does it take to sanitise such a long stretch, stop traffic for the entire duration of two hours or so that it would have taken, and ensure security on the way? Was this really a part of the SPG’s contingency plans?

There are other questions which need to be answered. The Met Department had forecast rain and inclement weather on Wednesday in the northern states several days in advance. The SPG could not have been oblivious to the Met Forecast. With the chopper crash in which the Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat and his wife were killed still fresh, the SPG would have ruled out a helicopter ride from Bathinda to Hussainiwala. But having done that, did the SPG actually clear the long, two-hour-long road-trip?

The Prime Minister’s motorcade normally includes a ‘warning car’ which always travels four to five minutes ahead of the motorcade. It is followed by a pilot car. If there was traffic coming from the opposite direction or if they spotted protestors blocking the road, why wasn’t the motorcade not stopped earlier? Stopping it on a flyover with protestors within hand-shaking distance was certainly a serious breach of security.

The Blue Book, say people conversant with it, would have warranted a quick about turn at the first sign of obstruction. Who and under what circumstances was the PM’s motorcade allowed to be stranded on the flyover for 20 minutes, as alleged by the MHA? Why was the motorcade allowed to reach within 20 meters of the protestors?

The question that needs to be settled is whether anyone pulled rank and overruled the SPG. At least one SPG chief, says the New Delhi grapevine, was shown the door during Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Nepal. And while the SPG is known to overrule protectees when it comes to security considerations, a lot is said to have changed over the past few years.

An inquiry ordered by the Punjab Government will hopefully unravel what happened.

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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