In poll season, the security of leaders - Hindustan Times

In poll season, the security of leaders

ByYashovardhan Azad
Mar 15, 2021 07:27 PM IST

Mamata Banerjee’s accident raises questions about the enforcement of security protocols and the role of institutions

The heady mix of chanting crowds, streaming banners, blaring loudspeakers and curious onlookers can drive any political leader to violate security and safety protocols during election campaigns. The exuberance is infectious enough to make even security personnel complacent and disregard the basic canons of protection. Popular leaders from across the globe love reaching out to the fawning masses, literally throwing all caution to the wind. History is witness to many such serious mishaps and yet, unfortunately, this keeps repeating itself, since no lessons are learnt.

Central and state security agencies have to play a much more assertive role; candidates must adhere to security and safety norms; EC should accept some measure of responsibility for lapses and take corrective measures (Samir Jana/HT Photo)
Central and state security agencies have to play a much more assertive role; candidates must adhere to security and safety norms; EC should accept some measure of responsibility for lapses and take corrective measures (Samir Jana/HT Photo)

The injury suffered by Mamata Banerjee, during her public rally in Nandigram after filing her nomination, is a case in point. The Election Commission (EC) report, compiled by special observers, terms it as an accident caused by critical gaps in the security arrangements laid out by district authorities. The state police finding is along the same lines. The EC suspended director, security, and SP, Nandigram but strangely spared the collector and only transferred him.

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But a chief minister (CM) getting hurt on an election campaign does raise issues of safety and security of candidates during electioneering. More so, when the CM has Z+ scale of security. It is the highest scale accorded in individual protection against threats emanating from terrorists and anti-national elements. The recent internecine battles between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Trinamool Congress (TMC) cadres warranted strict implementation of security and safety guidelines by Banerjee’s security personnel.

A Z+ scale of security provides layered protection comprising an isolation cordon too, which is critical for insulating the protectee from an assault or proximate threat. While the protected person is on the move, the personal security officer (PSO) is responsible for opening and closing of the vehicle door. In the current case, one theory is that a car door hit a standing pillar and, while closing banged against the victim’s leg. If only an advance recce of the road show was conducted, two imminent threats would have stood out — pillars on the way and unchecked crowds lined up sans barricade. Even if the crowd was friendly, mobile security teams could have managed a semblance of order and warned of the pillars ahead, along the way.

Another glaring security lapse was the manner in which the injured was carried to the hospital 125 km away, lying in the same vehicle. Every state has a security manual for the CM’s security which is scrupulously followed. Advance planning for such rallies would surely include an ambulance in the arrangements, with a doctor and paramedics.

Before every election, an elaborate exercise is undertaken for studying threat assessment of political leaders, and the state government is alerted on the security guidelines to be followed. However, politicians mostly disregard the advice of even senior police officers. The personal security detail merely stands as a silent observer of what goes on — in the name of all being free and fair during elections. Candidates, precariously perched on their vehicles, standing with the door half open and waving to the crowd, are watched helplessly by the accompanying security personnel.

The alleged presence of the director and deputy director, security at the rally has spawned a huge debate of jurisdiction between EC and the state government. TMC leaders have accused EC of usurping the law-and-order authority from the state, resulting in such lapses. EC has retorted stating that law and order was not taken over and still remained under the state.

A former chief election commissioner has said that before every election, a notification puts every police officer, from the director general of police (DGP) downwards to the constable, on deputation to EC. Then, how can EC escape responsibility? It transferred the DGP and key officers of the state to eschew perceived bias in the conduct of elections. It also announced an unprecedented eight-phase poll schedule in exercise of its unfettered powers. If law and order was so fragile, then wasn’t it incumbent on EC to issue strict guidelines for compliance of security and safety of candidates? Isn’t safety of star campaigners, especially during exciting but dangerous road shows, essential?

Mamata Banerjee is not just the CM but the most popular local leader in West Bengal. She is the lone star of Trinamool — the main battle tank against the BJP juggernaut. Her safety is paramount. Then why did the Trinamool not think of getting her a custom-made vehicle, which would enable her to participate in such rallies with safety while waving to the crowds? Many political leaders have benefited from using such vehicles.

A number of issues arise from Mamata Banerjee’s accident for the conduct of elections in future. Central and state security agencies have to play a much more assertive role in assessing threat perception, laying out security cordons and firmly implementing them. The candidates must adhere to security and safety norms for their own good and smooth conduct of elections. And, lastly, EC, while denying that it is micromanaging governance activities during the period, should accept some measure of responsibility for such lapses and take serious corrective measures to prevent their recurrence in future.

Yashovardhan Azad is a former IPS officer who served as Secretary (Security), Government of India. He is also a former Central Information Commissioner

The views expressed are personal

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