If a citizen applies to the government for security cover, is the latter bound to oblige him even if he is the country’s most wealthy individual? The short answer is yes, provided the government finds the threat credible. Why then has the decision to accord Mukesh Ambani ‘Z’ category security — which is second only to the ‘Z-plus’ protection accorded to such VVIPs as the Prime Minister, the President, the Congress chief and her children and a few hand-picked Chief Ministers — generated such a controversy? The reason is the lack of proportionality in the official response to the written threat Mr. Ambani received in February, purportedly from the Indian Mujahideen (IM). The writer Salman Rushdie was provided round-the-clock police protection for years following the price that was put on his head by Iranian clerics upset at his authorship of The Satanic Verses . But that security detail, which the British government was obliged to provide him, was a far cry from the over-the-top and ostentatious security blanket that Mr. Ambani will now be cocooned in wherever he travels. The issue is not the financial cost involved, as some have argued, but the opportunity cost. The redeployment of manpower on the scale demanded by Z-category protection — the Reliance boss will henceforth be guarded by 22 armed commandos drawn from the Central Reserve Police Force — means less security for others elsewhere.

Earlier this month, the Mumbai police acknowledged receiving a request for the setting up of a police chowki at Mr. Ambani’s multi-storied residence in Mumbai. Within the space of a fortnight, the government has gone from dragging its feet on his demand for a mere police post to sanctioning the full bandobast that comes with ‘Z category.’ One can only assume — or hope — that this decision is the result of a careful threat assessment done by intelligence professionals. The CRPF is stretched enough without having to extend its jurisdiction to men of immense wherewithal who are usually quite happy to invest in private security. With VIP security seen by many protectees as a status symbol, the government’s decision was always going to be controversial. The fact that it coincides with the climate of lawlessness prevailing in large parts of the country has made matters worse. In February this year, an angry Supreme Court, speaking in the context of the infamous Delhi gang-rape, ordered State governments to furnish details of police personnel seconded for VIP security. The numbers are huge. In a country where there are just 131 policemen and policewomen for every 100,000 residents, there has to be a better way of protecting our “national assets” than this.