From Special Protection Group (SPG) to CRPF Z-plus, the Centre has downgraded the security cover for Congress president Sonia Gandhi and her children, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Vadra, based on the latest threat assessment by security agencies, sources told The Indian Express.
The three were under SPG cover since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. Two months ago, the government had similarly downgraded the security cover for Congress leader and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
The latest decision was slammed by Congress leaders, with the party’s general secretary K C Venugopal accusing the government of “playing with the lives of Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka”. Senior leader Ahmed Patel accused the ruling BJP of deploying the “ultimate personal vendetta mechanism” and “compromising the lives of family members of two former Prime Ministers to acts of terror and violence”.
Later, Rahul Gandhi posted on Twitter: “A big thank you to all my brothers & sisters in the SPG who worked tirelessly to protect me & my family over the years. Thank you for your dedication, your constant support & for a journey filled with affection & learning. It has been a privilege. All the best for a great future.”
Sources told The Indian Express that the downgrade was based on a recommendation from a committee under the Ministry of Home Affairs about two weeks ago. The committee, with representatives from Intelligence Bureau, Research and Analysis Wing and Delhi Police, held that the threat perception against the members of the Gandhi family did not warrant SPG cover.
Sources said it would take about 10 days for the security detail to be formally handed over to the CRPF as it would involve a review of logistics required. With this decision, the 3,000-strong SPG will now provide cover only to the Prime Minister.
This is the second time that a member of the Gandhi family has lost SPG cover after the V P Singh government downgraded security for Rajiv Gandhi in 1989. Two years later, Gandhi was assassinated at Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu.
The SPG was set up in 1985 after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi’s mother and then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, with Parliament passing the SPG Act three years later to dedicate the group to protecting the Prime minister. After 1991, the Act was amended to offer SPG protection to all former prime ministers and their families for at least 10 years.
In 2003, the A Bi Vajpayee government amended the Act again to bring down the period of protection down from 10 years to “a period of one year from the date on which the former prime minister ceased to hold office” – or beyond according to threat perception.
Sources said the Gandhi family’s threat perception is assessed every year. “They will continue to enjoy Z plus security cover of the CRPF which is equally secure. Even Home Minister Amit Shah has the same security,” a Home Ministry official said.
A key difference between SPG cover and other security details is the Advance Security Liaison (ASL), which is not carried out for non-SPG protectees. Under ASL, the security entourage reaches the venue of the protectee’s visit almost a day in advance to sanitise it, conduct anti-sabotage checks, and set up door-frame metal detectors and a multi-layered cordon.
The government can, however, grant ASL to any protectee irrespective of SPG cover, as it has done in the case of Manmohan Singh. Incidentally, Narendra Modi had ASL cover before becoming the Prime Minister.
The government’s decision comes in the backdrop of complaints that Rahul Gandhi had allegedly been violating SPG protocols during his travels abroad and within the country.
On October 20, The Indian Express reported that from 2015 to May 2019, Gandhi did not travel in the SPG-mandated bullet-resistant (BR) vehicle in Delhi on 1,892 occasions. Sources said that on a number of occasions, Gandhi informed the SPG of his foreign trips allegedly at the last moment preventing officers from accompanying him.
Similarly, sources said, Sonia Gandhi did not allegedly use the BR vehicle on 50 occasions in Delhi from 2015 to May 2019. She also undertook 13 unscheduled visits to various parts of the country in the last five years during which she used non-BR cars, they said. She did not take SPG officers on 24 of her foreign visits since 2015, sources said.
Priyanka Gandhi, on the other hand, did not use BR vehicles on 339 occasions within Delhi and on 64 occasions in other places in the country between 2015 and May 2019. Of the 99 foreign visits she has undertaken since 1991, she took SPG cover only on 21 occasions, sources said.