The threat to the PM's life and conspiracy theories: a case of crying wolf once too often?

Why do conspiracy theories and threats to PM’s life surface before every crucial election?

PM Modi at Bathinda Airport
PM Modi at Bathinda Airport

Shalini Sahay

Punjab’s finance minister Manpreet Singh Badal, who received the Prime Minister at Bathinda, was the minister in attendance on behalf of the state government during PM’s visit to the state on Wednesday. And it was he who briefed the cabinet later in the evening that the PM was livid. The Prime Minister, he reportedly said, asked him to convey his thanks to the Punjab chief minister for what he had to undergo during his visit.

News Agency ANI, however, reported that the PM had asked ‘officials’ at Bathinda airstrip to convey his thanks to the chief minister for ensuring that he could return alive. While Punjab CM regretted that the PM had to return without addressing the scheduled rally at Ferozepur, he emphasized that there was no real threat to the PM. The PM was not attacked, he reiterated, and farmers who had blocked the road were in any case unarmed.

But by then the Union Government and the BJP had gone ballistic. They smelt a rat, alleged a conspiracy to physically harm the PM and blamed the Congress government in Punjab for deliberately causing the security breach. Demands were made for the CM to resign or to sack him. A petition was filed in the Supreme Court for directions to dismiss the state’s DGP and BJP leaders went all out to make it a political issue.

This is not the first time that the Prime Minister has spoken of threats to his life or alleged of conspiracies afoot to unseat him. After he unilaterally demonetized 86% of the currency in circulation in November 2016, ahead of the assembly election in Uttar Pradesh, he had broken down while addressing a rally in Goa. He knew, he had said, that ‘they will not allow me to live’. While the PM did not identify the alleged plotters, barely a year later Pune Police arrested a number of academics, priests, lawyers and activists for plotting a ‘Rajiv Gandhi-type of assassination’ of the Prime Minister. While the charge sheet filed in the Bhima Koregaon case by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) makes no mention of the alleged attempt to assassinate the PM, ‘urban naxals’ like lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj, English Professor Soma Sen, activist Gautam Navlakha, lawyer Surendra Gadling, late priest Stan Swamy and Management teacher Anand Teltumbde were put in jail.

Even earlier, towards the fag end of the campaigning for Gujarat assembly election in 2017, PM Modi alleged that a conspiracy had been hatched in New Delhi to unseat him. He alleged that a former High Commissioner of Pakistan to India and a former Foreign Secretary of Pakistan had met at dinner in the house of former union minister Mani Shankar Aiyer to finalise the plot.

After the election, however, the PMO, in reply to an RTI application, denied any information about the conspiracy. When the issue was raised in Parliament, late Arun Jaitley tendered an apology and explained away the allegation made ‘at the heat of the moment’.

The fresh controversy comes just ahead of the UP assembly polls, raising an uncomfortable question. Why do these conspiracy theories surface before crucial elections?

All available indications suggest that the BJP is preparing to milk the alleged threat to the PM’s life and an alleged conspiracy by the opposition. The BJP is fighting with its back to the wall a strong anti-incumbency in UP and the conspiracy theory appears disturbingly similar to the last throw of the dice.

Political observers have been quick to draw parallels with former PM Dr. Manmohan Singh. On a visit to Punjab, Dr Singh was shown black flags by Anna Hazare supporters. But they were not accused of conspiring to take PM’s life. Similarly, when Dr Singh went to Jawaharlal Nehru University to unveil a statue, he faced aggressive student demonstrators who raised slogans, asking him to go back. On both occasions Singh’s PMO intervened and ensured that the demonstrators held by police were let off.

PM Indira Gandhi had faced hostile demonstrators gracefully and the iconic photograph of the then JNUSU leader Sitaram Yechury reading out a chargesheet to her as she stood quietly and listened, is a reminder that prime ministers were not as isolated or insulated as PM Modi seems to be.

Indira Gandhi was hit by a stone during an election rally in Odisha, leading her to bleed from her nose. But she had continued with her address, refusing to back off. As the BJP this week went ballistic on the security breach, observers recalled how Indira Gandhi had refused to replace her Sikh bodyguards despite being warned of the threat to her life.

Farmers in Punjab, upset over cases against them not having been withdrawn despite promises, had indicated they would demonstrate against the PM during his visit to Punjab. They set up road blockades in various places, preventing BJP supporters from reaching the venue in Firozepur. IB reports would surely have alerted PMO about the situation and probability of low attendance?

As conspiracy theories swirled, observers did not miss that it was the same farmers’ union, BKU (Krantikari), and its leader Surjit Singh Phool, who had been suspended by Samyukt Kisan Morcha for diverting some farmers and tractors to the Red Fort on January 26 last year, who on Wednesday claimed responsibility for stopping the PM’s motorcade.

Congress spokesperson Gurdeep Singh Sappal quipped, “That day intelligence failed, today also it failed. Too much of a coincidence?”

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

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