Security scare for India’s Modi at the epicentre of farm unrest

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was stranded in the open after farmers blocked a motorway as the country’s most guarded politician drove into the heart of a protest against farm laws. His aides blamed the breach on a political conspiracy.

Demonstrators trapped Modi’s motorcade in Punjab state where bad weather forced the Hindu nationalist leader to abandon a helicopter ride and travel instead by road to a proposed election rally site in Ferozepur town.

Bands of men squatting on a flyover held up his car armada for 20 minutes forcing Modi to turn back without addressing the event organised to shore up his BJP party’s popularity in farm-dependent Punjab.

Disturbing TV footage showed up to 500 protesters, some seen with sticks, enforcing the security gridlock in Wednesday’s drizzle.

Lurking dangers

Modi’s government labelled the hold-up “a major lapse in the security of the prime minister” in Punjab, where India’s main opposition Congress party is in office.

“This is indeed a very dangerous security lapse. The prime minister is visiting a border state and we know what the threat perception from across the border,” from Pakistan, added C. Pal Singh, a former Punjab state police chief.

In 1984, India’s then prime minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh police guards and seven years later a female Tamil suicide bomber killed her son and former premier Rajiv Gandhi.

Shesh Paul Vaid, a former police chief from insurgency-wracked Kashmir, agreed amid calls for a hard look at the Indian security playbook for leaders facing death threats.

“You can’t have the prime minister on a route which is not sanitized and if protesters were there then why were they not removed,” Vaid told the media.

The Punjab administration on Thursday ordered an investigation into the breach, officials told RFI.

Congress faces attacks

Amit Shah, India’s powerful home minister and one of Modi’s trusted colleagues, in a Twitter post warned action against those guilty as he attacked the Congress party.

Cabinet minister Meeankshi Lekhi, also said those responsible will “pay the price” for the breach, one of the first faced by Modi since he became prime minister in 2014.

“We also travel across and we also know how these things are managed and manipulated. People responsible for this will have to pay the price for doing this,” she told television.

On cue, Modi’s ruling BJP also trained its guns on the Congress, which is seeking a second term after upcoming polls to Punjab’s 117-member legislature.

“Without the Punjab government’s connivance and state chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi’s involvement, no one can dare to come near the prime minister’s motorcade,” added state BJP chief Ashwani Sharma.

But Navjot Singh Sidhu, president of the Congress party’s Punjab chapter, alleged the breach was a “drama” to sidetrack public attention from the rally which he claimed did have enough guests to fill 70,000 chairs.

India’s Supreme Court has accepted a petition seeking a probe into the incident in Punjab, where a Sikh separatist drive claimed thousands of lives in the 1980s.

Restless farmers

Punjab was the hub of a 14-month-long protest by farmers against three laws they said would help rich corporations usurp the agriculture sector which accounts for 14 percent of India’s economy and 42 percent of employment.

In November, Modi withdrew the thorny reforms but the gesture did little to fully mollify farmers who have come up with demands linked to their livelihood.

Several farmers’ unions had opposed Modi’s visit to Punjab, often described as India’s food basket because of the high yield of wheat and rice crops.

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