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|January 16, 1998||
T V R Shenoy
The only people insisting on having the SPG trail after them are the Nehru-Gandhi and Vadra families
On the morning of May 2, 1997, John Major was prime minister of the United Kingdom, with the celebrated house at 10, Downing Street at his disposal. By the end of the day he had resigned. And even as he was reading out his statement to the media, the television viewers saw trucks moving his personal possessions away.
Please note that there was no palatial government bungalow offered as an alternative. John Major, like most other British MPs, was reduced to finding accommodation of his own.
It make a painful contrast with our own leaders, doesn't it? How long did it take Narasimha Rao to move out of Race Course road? I am afraid it was more like 24 days than 24 hours. The worst part is that such pampering doesn't stop even with that.
Take the issue of SPG coverage. To begin with, this elite group was intended only to protect the person of the sitting prime minister. Then, it was extended to cover former prime ministers as well. And the law as it stands today covers not just former chief executives of India but their immediate families too for a decade after they lose office.
Will it stop there? Rajiv Gandhi remitted office in December 1989. Does anyone seriously believe that Sonia Gandhi will leave the comforts of 10, Janpath in 1999? Or, for that matter, that Mr and Mrs Robert Vadra will be evicted from their bungalow in Lodi estate on the same day?
(To digress for a minute, why is everyone bent on describing Priyanka Vadra as Priyanka Gandhi? By the same token, shouldn't we be describing her mother as Sonia Maino?)
But Rajiv Gandhi's widow and daughter seem to have decided that forcing a mid-term poll on India wasn't enough. They have chosen to add to the taxpayer's bill by promising an active and intensive role in the Congress campaign.
Please understand what this means. The SPG can't let its guard down under the law (made by a Congress government needless to say). They must try their best to provide the same level of protection in every corner of the Indian subcontinent.
This means, for instance, that two armoured cars must be ferried along wherever the Congress's 'super-president' chooses to travel. Even if the party foots the bill for Sonia Gandhi and Priyanka Vadra, who pays for the cost of transporting those cars, a few dozen SPG men, and all the rest of the paraphernalia?
At this point, someone is sure to ask if all that isn't equally true of other former prime ministers-such as Atal Bihari Vajpayee for instance. Quite right, but there is a difference. The BJP leader has already expressed his unhappiness at the sometimes ludicrous demands made by his security-men. So has V P Singh.
Chronic illness makes it almost impossible for V P Singh to campaign anyway. And both Deve Gowda and Chandra Shekhar have a fairly realistic idea of their talents as campaigners outside their own severely limited areas of influence. (Of course, nobody need bother about Narasimha Rao showing his face anywhere!)
When you come right down to it, the only people insisting on having the SPG trail after them are the Nehru-Gandhi and Vadra families. But is there any real reason why they should be given higher levels of protection than that afforded to other leaders?
I am told that Indian intelligence agencies have reason to believe that there is a definite 'threat perception' to senior leaders of the BJP. It is also common knowledge that the LTTE still harbours a grudge against Jayalalitha. But, and this is the important point, none of them are insisting on SPG protection.
The Verma Commission (headed by the current Chief Justice of India) came to the conclusion that there was nothing wrong in the security system provided to Rajiv Gandhi. The fault lay in controlling the access, and the Congress party itself is largely to blame for that.
Hitting the campaign trial necessarily entails a certain amount of interaction with the ordinary voter. Vajpayee, for instance, accepts the risks. Yet the Congress seems content if Sonia Gandhi mouths a few words from behind bullet-proof glass with the audience at a respectful distance. If so, wouldn't it be cheaper to provide a VCR and a projection system?
Every party is talking of the huge expense of a general election. I quite agree. Let us make a start at economising by refusing to send the SPG on a tour of India.
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