Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s schedule on February 14 is suddenly under intense scrutiny. This is because the Congress has accused Modi of staying on in the Jim Corbett National Park to shoot a documentary hours after news had emerged about the Pulwama attack, in which 40 Indian paramilitary jawans were killed.
The Congress attack has raised questions about what exactly happened on that day and whether Modi was informed late about the Pulwama incident or decided to carry on with his schedule regardless.
Amid a slugfest over the specific details of the prime minister’s itinerary that day, one thing is clear and acknowledged by all: two hours after the attack, Modi addressed a political rally via phone. In that speech, he made no mention of the Pulwama incident.
Aside from that fact, everything else is currently contested.
In a tweet on Friday, Congress President Rahul Gandhi alleged that, three hours after news of the deaths of 40 jawaans, the “prime time minister” was still shooting.
The Bharatiya Janata Party responded, saying the shoot had happened that morning and Gandhi’s attacks amounted to “fake news”.
So what really happened?
First, there is broad consensus about the Rudrapur rally, which Modi addressed by phone at around 5.10 pm per a Doordarshan bulletin that cut to it live. The Pulwama attack took place at 3.10 pm, and was already all over the news at 5 pm. In fact, it was being mentioned on the news ticker as Doordarshan cuts to Modi’s speech.
If the audio there is not clear, reports about the rally also confirm that Modi made no mention of the Pulwama attack while addressing the political rally. “I am unhappy that despite having come to Uttarakhand, I could not reach in your midst because of bad weather,” Modi said, according to the PTI report. “Still, you are waiting to listen to me.”
He spoke of various farmer initiatives, gave credit to former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee for the creation of Uttarakhand, and promised that the BJP would nurture the state further. His only explanation for not being in Rudrapur was the weather.
Rest of the day
At this point, there are a few different versions of how the rest of Modi’s day unfolded, both before and after the rally. There are the Congress allegations, which are based on local news reports. Then there are claims made by an unidentified Uttarakhand official who spoke to The Telegraph. One unofficial briefing was given to the media attributed to anonymous government sources. Another unidentified senior government functionary spoke to the Times of India. Finally, there were the stories that turned up on television news channels on Thursday (and then disappeared from headlines) and in the Economic Times on Friday.
Each of these tells a different story. In short:
- Congress allegations: Well after the attacks happened, Modi continued to shoot a documentary, go on a boat ride and then had snacks in the Circuit House till 6.45 pm.
- Uttarkhand official: Modi took the boat ride before the attack occurred, but in the hours after, he went on a brief jungle safari, took a picture of black deer on his phone and reached Khinanauli Guest House where the shoot took place until 4.30 pm.
- Anonymous government sources: Modi cancelled Rudrapur rally appearance, but spoke via phone. After that, Modi spoke to the National Security Advisor, Home Minister and Jammu and Kashmir Governor about the incident. He did not eat anything.
- Senior government functionary: Modi had to cancel the Rudrapur appearance because he was on review calls about the situation. He then addressed rally via phone at 5.10 pm. He left for Bareilly by road afterwards.
- TV news and Economic Times: The news reached Modi late, which he was annoyed about, and hauled up National Security Advisor Ajit Doval to ask why that had happened. He then held meetings with the relevant leaders over phone.
Unless we get more authoritative documentation from any of the parties, it is hard to establish which one is accurate, though they fall into three categories: Modi carried on his programme despite the attack, Modi was informed late about the attack, or Modi knew about the attack and was coordinating responses.
Following this, there were the official statements. Modi’s own Twitter handle and the Prime Minister’s Office handle both only put out their statements after 6.45 pm.
Just to put this in context, the Congress put out its statement, read out by spokesperson Randeep Surjewala, at 5.48 pm.
Why it matters
Why does any of this matter? Well, the specifics raise a number of questions.
There is the simple question of transparency. Shouldn’t the prime minister’s schedule, even if he is out campaigning in the run-up to elections, be a matter of public record with allowances for confidential meetings?
The Congress would have us believe that Modi was callous in the face of a major attack and continued to shoot for a documentary as well as remain in the National Park. It is accepted by all that Modi did address a political rally well after the attack.
Some of this has been borne out by the BJP in the days after the incident. The party insisted that India is safer because of the BJP and would not have been safe if Congress had been around – despite Congress President Rahul Gandhi promising to stand with the government in the immediate aftermath.
Moreover, the story gains additional relevance because the BJP has been attacking anyone who doesn’t loudly announce their anger and nationalism in the aftermath of the attack.
If the information did indeed reach Modi late, either because of inclement weather or other reasons, that raises questions about the robustness of India’s security systems, and whether those need closer scrutiny.
Which one of these is it? Only additional information from the government will tell, if at all that is forthcoming.