India’s 12th President Pratibha Devisingh Patil is walking out of the Rashtrapati Bhavan, leaving behind possibly the most lackluster legacy.
This is in stark contrast with the 11th President of India, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam (People's President as he was popularly known as), whose stint brought dignity to the highest office.
I remember the day of July 28, 2007, when Kalam demitted the office of presidency. The Rashtrapati Bhavan and the citizens of India bid adieu to the missile man with tears in their eyes.
Kalam asserted his presidential power by signing the historic Office of Profit Bill. He popularised a unique concept called Providing Urban Amenities in Rural Areas (PURA) for rural development in India. In addition, he converted the Rashtrapati Bhavan into a ‘People's house’ by throwing open its majestic doors to people from all walks of life.
Kalam, through his work, had raised his stature, which was at par with India’s first two P
residents - Dr Rajendra Prasad and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, whom all Indians are proud of.
But, unlike her predecessor, Pratibha Patil’s tenure as the President failed to make a mark.
India often took pride in Patil as the country’s first woman President. Rather her tenure was marked with controversies.
Controversy over foreign jaunts
An RTI query in March this year revealed that President Pratibha Patil’s foreign visits cost the public exchequer a whopping Rs 205 crore, surpassing records of all her predecessors.
The RTI disclosure further revealed that state run Air India incurred over Rs 169 crore on use of chartered aircraft for foreign visits by Patil, mostly accompanied by her family members. The Ministry of Defence had to foot the bill for the use of the chartered aircraft. In addition, a sum of Rs 36 crore was paid by the Ministry of External Affairs on accommodation, local travel, daily allowance and miscellaneous expenses.
The President had undertaken as many as 12 foreign trips, covering 22 countries across 4 continents, since she assumed the office of Presidency.
As Patil’s foreign jaunts issue gained momentum, the Government of India was quick to clarify. "It's a normal diplomatic practice that a visiting dignitary occasionally takes members of his/ her family on visiting trips. Hospitality for such visiting dignitaries in such cases is usually provided by the host government," official spokesperson in the MEA, Syed Akbaruddin said.
Patil later told a private television channel, “Foreign trips are serious business. They are indeed beneficial in building the country's image and help in resolving many issues with nations. These visits have been in the context of the growing profile of India at the international level.” But the question remains, why does a President need to tag along grand kids to help build India’s relationship with the world?
Controversy over post-retirement home
Another RTI disclosure revealed that President Pratibha Patil was allotted classified A1 defence land at Khadki area in Pune for her post-retirement home by blatantly flouting the norms. First, prime defence lands are not meant for retirement homes. Second, President Patil was allotted land, which was six times more than she was entitled to. As the controversy grew, she was forced to surrender the huge stretch of land.
Inaction on mercy petitions
President Pratibha Patil will also be remembered for her inaction in deciding the mercy petitions, particularly in exceptional cases. She couldn’t take a call on Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru. Patil, however, could be credited for commuting death sentences of 23 petitioners to life imprisonment and hence termed as the “merciful of all Presidents”. Even if it meant giving mercy to a man who was already dead!
Son put mother in spot
Patil’s son Rajendra Shekhawat, Congress MLA from Amravati, is accused of misusing his mother’s official position to consolidate his political base. Going against the dignity of the high office, Patil inaugurated a flyover in her son’s constituency in December last. Shekhawat allegedly used his status as President’s son to acquire land worth Rs 1.5 crore for a charitable organisation headed by him.
The President is the ceremonial head of the state. The office has a tremendous symbolic significance. Pratibha Patil could have done wonders as the first Woman President. Unfortunately, her tenure will be remembered as a historic chance missed.
(The views expressed by the author are personal)