The announcement by British reality-show host Bear Grylls that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will star in his popular television show Man vs Wild has erupted into a major controversy. Modi is facing allegations from opposition parties that he continued to film for the show after 40 policemen were killed in a major terror attack in Pulwama, Kashmir. The attack nearly plunged South Asia into a war.
US president George W Bush faced a similar situation when he was in a school with children when news of the attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Center arrived on September 11, 2001. Bush continued to spend time with the children before being evacuated, as US officials scrambled to prevent further attacks.
The Pulwama incident was the biggest terror attack India had suffered in Jammu and Kashmir, a state that India and Pakistan have gone to war over in 1947, 1965 and 1999. With 40 policemen deployed by the central government for counterinsurgency duties killed, the prospect of another war escalated rapidly. The Indian government subsequently sent fighter jets into Pakistan for the first time since the 1971 war to bomb a suspected terror camp. For two countries with nuclear weapons, tensions have never been higher since the Kargil war of 1999.
On February 14 this year, terrorists swearing allegiance to a Pakistan-based group, Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), carried out a suicide attack on a convoy of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). The attack led to the deaths of 40 policemen who had been en route to the Kashmir Valley. Meanwhile Modi was in a forest in Jim Corbett National Park, filming for an episode of Man vs Wild. The opposition Congress party was quick to the draw and immediately accused Modi of preferring “publicity” over dealing with a national security crisis.
Modi won this year’s general election, rising on a wave of support after ordering Indian Air Force fighter jets to bomb a suspected terror base in Balakot, a town in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, on February 26. Pakistan retaliated by sending fighter jets the next day to bomb targets in India. However, the events of February 14, when Modi was filming with Grylls, remained in the dark until the show was announced on Twitter on July 29.
Missing in action
Official records show that the terror attack on the CRPF convoy occurred around 3:15pm India time. Modi was deep in the jungles of Jim Corbett Park with Grylls at that time. Government officials now insist that the filming lasted for only 45 minutes and was over by the time the news of the attack reached the prime minister.
But the prime minister’s subsequent actions undermine that claim.
According to official sources, Modi left the park only at 4pm and set off for the town of Rudrapur, where he was scheduled to address a political rally. The general election was due in April and Modi had already started campaigning across the country by then. Officials also said he was in the park to “review” certain ongoing projects, besides filming for the Man Vs Wild episode. However, what officials have not been able to clarify is why the prime minister was so busy with minor events in the protected forest area, and only emerged from the forest 45 minutes after the attack took place.
Government officials insist that the message to the prime minister was passed on within minutes of the attack, which took place at 3:15pm. This is also borne out by reports that the prime minister began to make calls at 4pm.
However, Modi did not reach the rally that was scheduled for 5pm. He went to a government guest house in Ramnagar, a town about 86 kilometers from Jim Corbett Park. Usually, the travel time is a little over an hour. While officials claim that Modi started monitoring the situation from the guest house from 4pm to 4:45pm, the distance belies that claim.
Modi eventually skipped the scheduled rally in Rudrapur, but addressed it for nearly seven minutes via phone. The fact that he did not miss addressing the rally also created a controversy at the time.
For a country that faces nuclear-armed adversaries on its western and northern borders, a terror attack of this magnitude needs immediate attention at the highest levels of the government. It is also a fact that when the attack took place, the state of Jammu and Kashmir was under direct rule of the federal government, after Modi’s party toppled the elected incumbents by withdrawing support last year. His federal government continues to rule the state through the office of a federally appointed governor.
Modi also heads the Cabinet Committee on Security and the national Crisis Management Group, two bodies that are entrusted with dealing with all national-security crises. Without his presence, these bodies could not have acted. Also, the Line of Control that separates India and Pakistan in Kashmir has the two countries’ armies virtually at war, exchanging artillery barrages almost on a daily basis.
Manish Tewari, a member of Parliament from the opposition Indian National Congress party and its official spokesman, raised it at a daily press briefing on July 30. He pointed out that the sequence of events of the day clearly indicated that the prime minister chose to continue filming for the show, even though he knew about the terror attack.
“If the prime minister was aware, then it reflected gross insensitivity by not condemning the incident on the first occasion that he got, the first occasion was the public meeting that he was holding and now with this particular film ready to be telecast on August 12.” He demanded that Discovery Channel make the details of the shoot on February 14 public.
However, the fact that Modi went ahead to address the political rally also came in for criticism from various quarters.
The episode of Man vs Wild with Modi is scheduled for August 12. Grylls announced this on his Twitter feed this Monday, and by the end of the day he had more than 37,000 retweets as Modi’s fans gushed over the announcement. Man Vs Wild is a popular show where Grylls goes deep into jungles across the world, and uses his survival training to improvise against impossible conditions. It is one of the most watched shows globally.
However, there was an inkling about the shooting of the episode on February 14 for quite some time from Grylls’ social-media announcements. He had already mentioned that he was on his way to India to film a special episode. This meant that the Prime Minister’s Office had been in touch with Discovery and Grylls several months before the actual shoot.
However, after the Pulwama terror attack, all references to any possible filming for an episode of the show were ignored and forgotten. As India launched an air strike on Pakistan, the first of its kind since the 1971 war, the two nuclear-armed neighbors began to prepare for an escalation of hostilities.
Grylls, a former volunteer British Special Forces officer, had also done similar shows with other celebrities including one with Barack Obama when he was in office as president of the United States. While Modi is much older than Obama, the show is seen as great publicity for the Indian prime minister to bolster his image at a time when he is facing several challenges.
Two major challenges face Modi, besides a slew of other issues that are on a slow burn. First is the state of the economy, which is slowing down at an alarming rate. Modi won two successive elections with an overwhelming majority on the basis of election promises that the economy would begin booming under his administration. In his stint as the chief minister of Gujarat, he had shown that he was very “business-friendly.” That image is now seriously shaken.
The state of the Indian economy has been drawing adverse commentary for months from global investors. Investors lost nearly US$95 billion in the stock markets after a lackluster budget announcement in July, while job losses remain the highest ever.
The other major policy announcement by Modi was his effort to protect women. His signature campaign, “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” (save the daughter, educate the daughter) was launched with a lot of fanfare a few years ago. However, the case of a brutal rape of a 16-year-old two years ago allegedly involving a legislator from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has created a storm.
The girl’s father was killed in police custody when he and his brother tried to protest police inaction a year ago. This week the girl was traveling to meet her uncle, who is in prison, when a truck with blanked-out license plates rammed into her car, killing two aunts, while she and her lawyer remain in critical condition. The police have registered a fresh case against the BJP legislator for attempted murder, but the issue has severely dented the prime minister’s image. After the Supreme Court stepped in and ordered the case to be transferred to Delhi, heard on a daily basis and the trial to be completed in 45 days, the BJP finally woke up and suspended the legislator from the party’s membership.
Clearly, the carefully cultivated narrative of the prime minister has been widely rattled by these two singular failures. The BJP is hoping that the telecast of the Man vs Wild show will help bolster the prime minister’s image.