As President Pratibhatai Patil’s tenure draws to a close, it might be pertinent to ask what her five years in Rashtrapati Bhavan would be best remembered by. Would it be her surprise selection for the job, or her controversial appointment marked by PILs, or her numerous trips abroad that cost the exchequer Rs 205 crore. Or would it be the men in her life—her husband and son—who allegedly leveraged her office to suit themselves?
The jury is out but there isn’t much to choose from. Not surprisingly, the perception has gained ground that President Patil’s tenure has been rather colourless and forgettable, that her term would be remembered for what it could have been rather than what it was, and that her most memorable quality will remain her gender in the august house as the “first woman president” of the country.
“After the first three presidents who were scholars and institution-builders, we have hardly had presidents who can be identified with some great quality until K.R. Narayanan and A.P.J. Abdul Kalam,” observes Ramachandra Guha, social historian. “I don’t want to disparage an individual here but I believe that her selection itself is a comment on our political class.”
President Patil’s curriculum vitae is not unimpressive: she is a post-graduate, a trained lawyer when it wasn’t the most common vocation for women, she has been a minister in her home-state Maharashtra, the pradesh Congress chief and later deputy chairperson of Rajya Sabha. “Her strongest quality through her political life was her unswerving loyalty to the Nehru-Gandhi family and her docile nature,” says a veteran Maharashtra Congress leader. Almost off the political radar, that loyalty explains, at least partly, her assignment as governor of Rajasthan in her comeback avatar. Then, in 2007, she emerged as the surprising dark horse candidate to replace Kalam. Her worst critics call her “an elevated sarpanch”.
There have been charges that President Patil, wittingly or otherwise, lowered the prestige and dignity of her office—whether in inaugurating a flyover in Kondhali, 20 km from Amravati, which is now clearly the political base of her family, or in lobbying, indirectly, for her son Rajendra Shekhawat to be given a Congress ticket in the Maharashtra 2009 assembly election. “It was the first time a serving President’s son had to be politically accommodated. The party leadership was in a soup because Raosaheb (as Shekhawat is called) couldn’t be taken seriously, he had been denied a Mumbai civic election ticket months before she became president, but we had to ensure he was elected as MLA,” says a party general secretary.
President Patil’s husband Devisingh Shekhawat has drawn a fair amount of scrutiny too. Sources say there’s a “resentment level” within the party as well as the bureaucracy because he has been rather visible and vocal about appointments and such like. “You could say he was running a parallel office,” remarks Prof A.D. Sawant, recollecting the time when he was in the running for the post of vice-chancellor, University of Mumbai. Party sources say he continues to be a career politician and likes to demonstrate his clout. Shekhawat Sr could not be reached for his comments.
However, this has thrown the spotlight on the extra-constitutional roles played by relatives of those who occupy positions of power. All these decades, the spouse in Rashtrapati Bhavan—when there was one—was a woman who was discreet about the company she kept and selective about her public profile, which would be limited to ceremonial occasions, unlike Shekhawat senior who has an active public profile and has been seen in the ante-chambers of chief ministers. “This is not exclusive to this family. That’s how the political class behaves,” argues Guha. “It’s a larger malaise where they refuse to recognise the distinctions between family and party, party and government and so on, but it’s not excusable.”
Party sources say that given the uncertainty about the choices over her successor, President Patil may have enjoyed a second term, but for the “increasing levels of discomfort” the leadership feels about her family and their public profile.
Most recently, what drew public ire was the revelation, through a Right to Information application, that Patil’s foreign trips—22 so far—had cost the national exchequer Rs 205 crore. Of her predecessors, Kalam had visited 17 countries, Narayanan 13; R. Venkataraman had visited 21 and V.V. Giri 22 countries during their respective tenures. The President’s office clarified that “comparison of the number of foreign visits by various presidents is potentially misleading as the frequency of such visits do not follow a fixed normative pattern”.
President Patil’s trips were necessary, according to her office, “to deepen bilateral cooperation” at a time when India’s global profile and strategic importance has been rising around the world. A presidential aide explains it thus, “While in the last decade, only 51 foreign dignitaries visited the President’s House, in 2011 alone, more than 90 foreign delegates did. As protocol, the President returns the visit of the foreign dignitary by visiting his/her country.” Also, her office says, the “composition of delegation has been on the same pattern as followed in the past”.
Sources, in fact, say that all these trips are cleared by the Union ministry of external affairs and the pmo; Rashtrapati Bhavan does not decide which countries the President should visit. Sources further add that the “trips appear more expensive than the trips undertaken by the previous presidents because of the rising costs of ATF (aviation turbine fuel). And, presidents have always travelled with their own cooks and butlers, now described as attendants. Former president Giani Zail Singh would travel with a valet.”
President Patil is scheduled to travel to South Africa and Seychelles next. Her trip from April 27 to May 7 will have a 70-member delegation and a media contingent of 21; a business delegation of 42 people will also be part of the visit. While previous presidents travelled with a mix of officials, MPs and bureaucrats as part of their delegation, President Patil started taking a separate business delegation to promote Indian industry. Industry organisations such as FICCI or ASSOCHAM bear the expenses of such delegations.
The controversy around her retirement residence—in the cantonment area of Pune on a plot earlier reserved for Territorial Army soldiers—has also “hurt” the President. Sources say, “She feels hurt especially when all of this comes at the tail-end of her term when she would instead want people to talk about the good work she has done.” That, let’s say, is the democratic prerogative of her citizens.
Dogged By Controversy
From the moment her candidature was announced, President Pratibha Patil has received lots of negative press
- She claimed to have been told of her impending exalted status by a dead 'Baba' at Mt Abu
- Rajasthan minister Ameen Khan was forced to resign after he was quoted as saying that Patil was rewarded for loyalty and for making tea and cooking at the Gandhi household
- As health minister, she spoke of the need to forcibly sterilise people with hereditary diseases
- She was accused of protecting her brother in a murder case
- The RBI shut down a cooperative bank in 2003 after it became insolvent following a decision to waive loans advanced to her relatives
- Maharashtra govt accused of 'agreeing' to build a sports complex in 2007 with Patil's MPLADS funds dating back to 1996
- As President, inaugurated a flyover near Amravati to boost the political career of her son; accused of lowering the dignity of her office
- An RTI application revealed an expense of Rs 205 crore on her foreign trips, the highest ever by a President
- The home ministry snubbed her by turning down a demand for Rs 85 lakh to renovate and furnish her post-retirement residence at Pune (pic above). A.P.J. Abdul Kalam was
sanctioned Rs 6.5 lakh and K.R. Narayanan Rs 4.5 lakh. The ministry has sanctioned Pratibha Patil Rs 20 lakh.
- Photojournalists in Goa summoned and warned by officials after photographs of the sari-clad president on the beach surrounded by tourists in bikinis.
By Smruti Koppikar in Mumbai and Prarthna Gahilote in Delhi