India’s prime minister has experienced a slew of what were called “assassination attempts”, which ultimately helped bolster his image.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sees himself as a strongman. So do his supporters who never tire of publicising his strength – including his supposedly broad chest – and claiming that he is best suited to protect the country.
Most Indians also agreed, when months before the 2019 parliamentary elections, Modi sent warplanes to bomb a Pakistani town to avenge an attack on Indian soil. The cross-border strike won him a landslide re-election.
But ironically, the same strong Modi showcases his vulnerability from time to time, as he is doing now over a security breach during his recent visit to the state of Punjab.
A serious lapse occurred. While travelling to a rally site by road, some protesters blocked his way and Modi was stuck on an overpass around 10 km from the Pakistani border for approximately 20 minutes. And for the duration of this period, the prime minister remained a sitting duck for anyone with ulterior motives.
Fortunately, nothing happened and Modi aborted his trip and returned unharmed.
But the controversy over who was responsible – the prime minister’s own Special Protection Group or the police from Punjab – has since been fiercely debated.
Modi supporters have fanned the controversy further by portraying the lapse as a full-blown assassination plot against the prime minister.
As it turns out, Modi and assassination plots have had rather a long history.
Long before he became prime minister, Modi and his men have, from time to time, raised the fear of conspiracies to eliminate him.
The first time was in 2004 when Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat and the police there killed four Muslims – including a college student named Ishrat Jahan - on suspicion of being terrorists, on the outskirts of Ahmedabad city. The ‘terrorists’, the police claimed, were plotting to kill Modi.
Not everyone was convinced with the police’s claim and many suspected the killings to be a staged encounter. However, the assassination accusation remained merely an accusation and nothing was ever proven.
Undeterred, the Gujarat police claimed another assassination plot against Modi the very next year when they killed an alleged gangster named Sheikh Sohrabuddin and his wife.
As with the Ahmedabad killings, these killings also triggered a massive controversy amid lingering suspicions of it being just another staged encounter. Once again, no assassination plot was ever proved.
These unproven plots apparently helped to bolster Modi's image as a leader who is determined to do his job and defend his countrymen, even in the face of huge personal risks.
For years, things were quiet and Modi’s popularity grew. He shifted base, from Gujarat to Delhi, and became the prime minister in 2014.
In 2018, hints of another assassination plot against Modi made headlines once again. This time, police in the state of Maharashtra claimed to have seized a letter from the house of a jailed activist, which apparently proved a conspiracy.
The letter was unusual to say the least. Plotters normally do not provide written evidence of names or other details. However, this purported letter talked of a plan to target Modi with a blast similar to the one that killed the former prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, in 1991.
The activist from whose house the letter was allegedly seized remains in jail over other charges. But significantly, police have stopped pursuing the assassination plot.
However, following the security breach involving the prime minister’s cavalcade in Punjab, talk of a plot to assassinate Modi is back with a vengeance.
Though no harm was done to Modi, ministers in his government are convinced of a conspiracy.
“Trapping the prime minister in the well of death was no coincidence but a conspiracy. He survived due to the blessings of Lord Shiva… it appears that he could have been killed with a drone or telescopic gun,” claimed the union minister, Giriraj Singh.
It’s election time, when five provinces - including the country’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh - are scheduled to elect regional governments over the next two months. Given the surcharged political mood, it seems that Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is attempting to exploit the alleged assassination bid in order to turn the tables on the opposition Congress Party.
Punjab, where the security breach happened, is governed by the Congress, and senior BJP functionaries are going into overdrive to pin the blame on the party. In fact, in a highly unusual move, the highest elected official of the state of Assam, who belongs to the BJP, has demanded the arrest of his Punjab counterpart from the Congress.
For all practical purposes, BJP is out of reckoning in the Punjab polls due to a variety of reasons. But it hopes that the sympathy generated for the prime minister over the ‘assassination’ bid would help the party in the rest of the election-bound states.
Sympathy is welcome as the contest is going to be close and the BJP is looking to compensate for any dent in public support over a host of issues, including a struggling economy and rising fuel prices.
Even unemployment at a high level of eight percent is a cause for huge concern, with other emerging economies like Bangladesh (5.3 percent) and Vietnam (2.3 percent) doing much better on that score than India under Modi.
To deflect attention from pressing issues and whip up sympathy, senior BJP functionaries have fallen back on what seems to be plain sycophancy.
They are virtually competing with one another to show their solidarity with the prime minister.
While Madhya Pradesh’s chief minister, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, visited a temple to thank the gods for protecting Modi, union minister Jyotiraditya Scindia and Tripura’s chief minister, Biplab Deb, have recited texts from Hindu scriptures, seeking a long life for their leader.
Others are busy expressing outrage on television and criticising the opposition.
Horrified at the war of words, the country’s top court has stepped in and ordered an investigation of its own. It has also asked everyone to refrain from trading accusations.
But the uproar is nowhere near its end with the BJP continuing to hold protests across the country. It is in its own political interest that the plot thickens before the crucial polls.
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