Scrutinising details of former Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s security protocol as devised by the Special Protection Group (SPG), the government has identified “gaps that raise concern,” officials have told The Indian Express.
Analysing his travel, government officials have found that since 2015, there have been 1,892 occasions (until May 2019) when Gandhi did not travel in a bullet-resistant (BR) vehicle in Delhi — this works out to at least once a day.
On 247 occasions in this period, (June 2019 included), Gandhi chose to avoid a BR vehicle while travelling out of Delhi. Between 2005 and 2014, sources said, Gandhi travelled in a non-BR vehicle on 18 occasions in various parts of the country.
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Government sources said Gandhi has also been reluctant to use SPG cover abroad. Since 1991, sources said, Gandhi had made 156 foreign trips. In 143 of these, sources said, he did not take the SPG with him.
While some officials red-flag this as “non-observance of protocol,” there are others who said there were no rules under the SPG Act specifically mandating a protectee to take SPG cover abroad.
“Under the Act, the protectee is supposed to be protected all the time. It is silent on where. So it is to be assumed that it applies to foreign visits as well,” an official said.
Officials said that even though a protectee was to be protected all the time, there have been certain courtesies extended to all SPG protectees. Also different countries have different norms and rules for protection of foreign dignitaries.
For example, officials said, there are times when the protectee doesn’t want a security detail to accompany them when they are dropping off their child for admission to a school or college.
“It is embarrassing to walk into an educational institution with a large security detail. Privacy of the protectee is respected in certain situations abroad as well. Many countries do not allow for weapons to be carried into their country. In all such situations, advance preparations are made. There are drills for security without weapons as well,” an official said.
Sources said that in August 2017, Gandhi was travelling in a non-BR vehicle in Banaskantha in Gujarat. There was an incident of stone-pelting on Gandhi’s private car and an SPG PSO was injured. The matter was raised by Congress in Parliament and then Home Minister Rajnath Singh had told Lok Sabha that Gandhi did not avail of SPG BR vehicles on 100 occasions out of his 121 visits between April 2015 and June 2017.
Responding to a questionnaire sent to the Congress communication department by The Indian Express on these findings, lawyer Tarannum Cheema wrote on behalf of the party: “The All India Congress Committee can neither confirm nor deny the material in your possession. If genuine or bonafide, this information could only have been shared with you by the SPG. The information is either directly or indirectly in contravention of the law and express provisions of the (SPG) Act. You are, therefore, directly or indirectly illegally in possession of material that endangers the lives of SPG protectees including the Prime Minister of India and former Prime Ministers and their immediate families.”
The SPG is a force raised specifically for the protection of the PM, former PMs and their immediate families. The force is currently 3,000 strong and protects four people — PM Narendra Modi, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, her son Rahul Gandhi and her daughter Priyanka Gandhi. The SPG cover of former PM Dr Manmohan Singh was removed after 2019 elections and he was provided with Z-plus security cover.
The SPG was raised in 1985 in the wake of the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984. Earlier, Delhi Police (before 1981) and Special Task Force (raised by the Intelligence Bureau in 1981) provided residence and proximate security to the PM.
A review committee of secretaries, constituted in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, recommended formation of a special group under a designated officer and for STF to provide immediate security cover both in New Delhi and outside as a short-term measure.
Subsequently, a committee under the Ministry of Home Affairs recommended raising a Special Protection Unit (SPU) under the Cabinet Secretariat. The SPU was then re-christened Special Protection Group (SPG), which functioned under executive orders for three years till Parliament passed the SPG Act in 1988.
At the time, the Act did not include former PMs and the SPG protection given to his predecessor Rajiv Gandhi was withdrawn when V P Singh came to power in 1989. The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 led to amendments in the SPG Act to offer SPG protection to all former prime ministers and their families for at least 10 years.
In 2003, during the Vajpayee government, it was amended again to bring the period of automatic protection down from 10 years to “a period of one year from the date on which the former prime minister ceased to hold office” and beyond one year based on the level of threat as decided by the general government.
During the Vajpayee government, the SPG cover of former PMs such as H D Deve Gowda, I K Gujral and P V Narasimha Rao was withdrawn. Vajpayee had SPG protection until his death last year.
Under the current SPG Act, family members of an incumbent PM or that of a former PM can decline security cover. Manmohan Singh’s daughters had declined SPG cover after he ceased to become PM.