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‘Money down the toilet:’ India security experts on Harper’s $1-million armoured car

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife Laureen are greeted by India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his wife Gursharan Kaur as they arrive at Rashtrapati Bhavan (Presidential Palace) \in New Dehli, Nov. 6, 2012.


The government's decision to fly two armoured vehicles to India at a cost of more than $1-million for Prime Minister Stephen Harper's state visit last November mystified Indian diplomats, and prominent security analysts here say it reflects a shocking lack of understanding of modern India on the part of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, whom the government says recommended the move.

The Indian government had offered Canada the use of an armoured Mercedes Benz for Mr. Harper's visit but after a "threat assessment" the RCMP decided it was not sufficient. Canada brought an armoured Cadillac limousine and SUV.

"It's their choice and they are entitled to make a choice – and if it's costly, it's their problem," Syed Akbaruddin, a spokesman for India's Ministry of External Affairs, said of the Canadian government's decision to use a Canadian Forces C-17 Globemaster heavy-lift transport plane to fly the vehicles over for Mr. Harper's four-day visit.

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It is not standard protocol for a visiting leader to bring his or her own vehicle, Mr. Akbaruddin said.

India's President uses an armoured Mercedes-Benz S600 while Prime Minister Manmohan Singh – whose security team receives roughly a dozen serious threats to his personal security each day – uses an armoured 2009 BMW 7 Series for his travel in the country, security sources say. Canada brought an armoured Cadillac limousine and SUV.

"To think that India cannot protect a visiting dignitary is testament to very poor intelligence in Western countries and a failure of comprehension – it's just plain stupid," said Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management in Delhi and a leading expert on terrorism in South Asia. "From a pure security perspective, it's money down the toilet."

When asked about the criticism from Indian security experts and officials, a spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said Ottawa relied on its own internal assessment of the situation in the country, intimating that India had a unique set of challenges.

"The RCMP makes all operational decisions regarding security requirements," Rick Roth said.

Mr. Roth added that shipping the cars on a commercial flight would have cost twice as much as using the Canadian Forces transport plane. "The cost of this flight was significantly offset by savings achieved by transporting equipment and personnel on the same aircraft."

Defending the decision in parliament, Mr Baird made reference to the fact that India has had two prime ministers assassinated in the past 25 years and faced a major terrorist attack in Mumbai in 2008.

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India's President uses an armoured Mercedes-Benz S600 while Prime Minister Manmohan Singh – whose security team receives roughly a dozen serious threats to his personal security each day – uses an armoured 2009 BMW 7 Series for his travel in the country, security sources say. Canada brought an armoured Cadillac limousine and SUV.

Neither British Prime Minister David Cameron nor Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, expected here next month, will bring a car, Mr. Akbaruddin predicted. Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard used the Indian Mercedes on her state visit a month before Mr. Harper's.

Indian analysts said Mr. Baird's justification shows an outdated understanding of the country Mr. Harper has repeatedly identified as a priority partner for his government.

Ajai Shukla, a defence analyst it was "logical" for the RCMP to want to do its own, but he questioned its conclusions. The assassinations which Mr. Baird said factored into the security assessment took place "in a different day and age. India is now probably over-protective – today the Indian prime minister is among the most heavily guarded leaders in the world," he said.

Indira Gandhi was assassinated 29 years ago by her bodyguards in a reprisal for her moves against Sikh militants. Those guards had been removed from protecting her on the advice of intelligence agencies, and the Prime Minister herself reinstated them. Former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi was killed by a Tamil Tigers suicide bomber in 1991 while campaigning for re-election.

Those acts, Mr. Sahni noted, were extraordinary situations.

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"Since then, Indian security for VIPs has been of the highest standards and incidents of breach of VIP security are extremely rare and taken very seriously," said Sushant Singh, a defence policy expert with a think tank called The Takshashila Institution. "To cast aspersions on Indian security agencies and the vehicles they would have offered to Mr. Harper in order to justify the transportation of his own car from Canada is a grossly unfair comment."

No foreign leader has ever been attacked in India.

Mr. Shukla said 10 to 12 serious threats against Prime Minister Singh are received each day and "actioned" and that the same task for which carries out those investigations also handles the security of visiting dignitaries.

"I don't doubt they could look after the Canadian prime minister," Mr. Shukla said.

Mr. Sahni called the invocation of the November, 2008 attacks by Pakistani militants in Mumbai an "absurd" comparison, since those were mounted on unguarded, public places, while Mr. Harper was at all times heavily guarded.

"It's a very paranoid reaction – to spend a million dollars to bring his own vehicle, I find that to be frankly outrageous that he would impose that cost on Canadian taxpayers," added Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.

Mr. Harper's visit generated almost no media coverage or public reaction in India, and Prof. Chellaney said he found the RCMP's threat assessment bizarre. "Who would want to assassinate the Canadian prime minister?"

With a file from Daniel Leblanc

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Latin America Bureau Chief

Stephanie Nolen is the Latin America correspondent for The Globe and Mail.After years as a roving correspondent that included coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Stephanie moved to Johannesburg in 2003 to open a new bureau for The Globe, to report on what she believed was the world's biggest uncovered story, Africa's AIDS pandemic. More


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