As I watched on the television channels visuals of Rahul Gandhi travelling by a suburban train in Mumbai on February 5, 2010, my mind went back to the initial days of VP Singh as the prime minister in 1989.
Those were the days of Khalistani terrorism. Terrorists trained by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence were running amok in Punjab and Delhi, killing dozens of innocent civilians and security forces personnel. One of the promises made by VP Singh during the election campaign was to bring a healing touch to the Sikh community. Simranjit Singh Mann, a former IPS officer, who had resigned from the service in protest against the way the Congress-I was handling the problem, had emerged as a valued adviser of VP Singh.
Shortly after taking over as the prime minister, VP Singh, on the advice of Mann, decided to visit the Golden Temple at Amritsar without security. Mann assured him that there would be no threat to his security. VP Singh ordered that apart from bodyguards in plain clothes no other security arrangements should be made for him.
The security agencies responsible for his security did not want to take chances. They deployed a large number of security personnel in plain clothes in the Temple itself and outside to ensure that nothing went wrong, without telling VP Singh anything about it.
From VP Singh's perspective, it was a highly emotional and successful visit. After worshiping in the temple, he travelled round the town in an open vehicle. There were thousands of Sikhs and others, who mobbed him and greeted him. Highly pleased by the reception that he got, he said that his security was safe in the hands of the people, who loved him so much. Where was the need for official security at the expense of the taxpayer, he asked.
He was unaware that hundreds of those, who mobbed him and hailed him, were not members of the public, but security forces personnel who had been asked to mingle with the crowds to protect him.
Subsequently, highly gratified by media accounts of his successful visit to Amritsar and mingling with the crowds, VP Singh decided to travel by train from Delhi to Jaipur. He rejected the advice of the security agencies not to do so.
He went to the Delhi railway station and got into the train. Large cheering crowds on the station platform mobbed him. He took his place inside the compartment with what he thought were other members of the travelling public. He returned from Jaipur by train.
He was highly gratified by the warmth shown by the travelling public to him and decided to undertake more trips by train. He was unaware that many of those who cheered him at the railway station and that all those who were in the compartment with him were actually security forces personnel in mufti.
After he returned to Delhi, senior officers in charge of PM's security told him the truth and explained that since it was their responsibility to protect him, they could not have taken chances. They also pointed out that such forays by him seemingly without security cost the taxpayer more than the usual security and weakened their capability to protect him.
Thereafter, he stopped indulging in such gimmicks in order to embarrass Rajiv Gandhi. The Congress (I) was raising a hue and cry about the downgrading of security for Rajiv Gandhi. He wanted to embarrass Rajiv Gandhi and his party by showing that Rajiv Gandhi needed elaborate security because people, according to VP Singh, did not like him, whereas he (VP Singh) did not need that kind of security because the people loved him. Wiser advice prevailed and he stopped doing this.