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’I Will Be A Political President’

Monday 13 August 2007, by GUPTA *Smita

’I Will Be A Political President’

Outlook meets the new incumbent at Rashtrapati Bhavan and finds that she has a lot of steel under that demure persona

Smita Gupta on Pratibha Patil

"I knew what was being said was baseless. If it represented the reality, I would have been perturbed." President Pratibha Patil

It’s just a little over 48 hours since Pratibha Patil has been sworn in as President of India, and the ghost of A.P.J. Abdul Kalam has not yet departed from Rashtrapati Bhavan. His portrait still dominates the succession of waiting rooms that we pass through till, finally, we walk down a corridor flanked by oil paintings of figures from India’s freedom struggle, our footfalls echoing over diamond-shaped black and white marble tiles.

We turn a corner and a naval ADC ushers us into a study where Pratibha Patil—dressed in an off-white khadi sari with a narrow brown border—has just finished confabulating with her new secretary, Christy Leon Fernandez.

She crosses over with a firm step and sits down, lady-like and upright, with her legs crossed, smiles and inquires whether we’ve had some tea. Her predecessor, she says, "used to give interviews" from his study table, but she thought this (she gestures to the conversation area we are seated in) "might be more comfortable". She begins to talk, in fluent English. There are no minders in the room—both Fernandez and the ADC have left. Soon, it is more than clear that behind that deceptively low-key, soft-spoken, head-demurely-covered-with-sari-pallav exterior, there is steel.

Was the nastiness of the presidential campaign difficult to deal with? Did she at any point feel she would be better off pulling out? She looks straight at us and says firmly, "No, not for a moment. I knew what was being said was baseless. If it represented the reality, I would have been perturbed." She then makes it clear that as far as she is concerned, the BJP’s dirty tricks campaign and the manner in which the Congress dealt with it are a "closed chapter" which she doesn’t want to think about any more—she would prefer to look to the future. Indeed, her election managers who saw her through the harrowing month-long campaign, travelling with her to as many as 20 states across the country, confirmed that she remained "cool" right through, unruffled, though each day brought a slew of new accusations. Sources close to her say that she doesn’t believe that her being a woman played a major role in the BJP launching such a vicious attack—she was very conscious, these sources add, that "being Sonia Gandhi’s nominee would make her a natural target for the BJP." And as a veteran of many an electoral battle, she slid into campaign mode smoothly.

What does she feel about the BJP’s accusations that her loyalty to the Congress and Sonia Gandhi will make her a "rubber-stamp president"? "Forget about that," she retorts, "I am not going to be a rubber-stamp president—look at my record." In fact, her admirers point out that what stood out in her three-year stint as governor of Rajasthan was that she was her own woman. She returned the controversial anti-conversion Freedom of Religion Bill twice, and finally referred it for a presidential reference—something that she herself will have to deal with now. Not just that, she also didn’t allow Congressmen in Rajasthan to bully her into submitting a report to the Centre about a breakdown in law and order during the violence that accompanied the Gujjar-Meena face-off earlier this year. Instead, she simply called in chief minister Vasundhararaje and asked her to get her act together.

Of her two predecessors in Rashtrapati Bhavan, K.R. Narayanan was seen as a "political" president, while Kalam was usually described as "apolitical"—how does she see her role? "Political," she says, adding, "There are several issues on which suggestions could be passed onto the government—in formulating the budget, for instance.

A president can always discuss with the government suggestions on critical issues—and the government, after due consideration, can accept or reject those suggestions. " Any specific areas? "I am particularly interested in rural development, the rural economy, women’s development, welfare of the backward castes, scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, education, health..."

Kalam was repeatedly described in the media as "the people’s president"—will that be a hard act to follow? Her answer is circumspect, but there is no mistaking the edge: "Accessibility should not be a problem," she says quietly. Indeed, in her first two days in Rashtrapati Bhavan, she entertained over a 1,000 visitors—many who had travelled from far-flung villages in Maharashtra and some from Rajasthan, just to get a glimpse of her, perhaps have a photograph taken with her. Sources close to her say she was deeply touched that people who could ill-afford had spent money to make the long journey. Eventually, there were so many people that the doors of the Ashoka Hall—with its elaborately painted ceiling and exquisite chandeliers—whose grand interior is usually reserved for swearing-in ceremonies, presentation of credentials from foreign ambassadors and cultural functions in honour of visiting heads of state, was thrown open to the visitors.

If that was an interaction with aam janata, a few days after Outlook met her, she had to deal with her first political encounter. A BJP delegation sought permission to meet her to draw attention to the political confusion in Goa. She readily agreed to meet them and received them graciously even though the group was half an hour late. (Her predecessor, Kalam, would invariably cancel appointments if people did not keep time.) Reports about the meeting suggest that though she was not able to give any assurances, the BJP leaders left satisfied—and impressed—after meeting a woman they had pilloried mercilessly for a month. And what did she do? She just offered tea and sympathy, telling them that she was sure that the governor of Goa was conversant with the constitutional position. She addressed the Goa MLAs in Marathi, and generally soothed ruffled feathers—she is clearly the quintessential politician, totally at ease in what was a tricky situation.

Pratibha Patil not only has to be a "people’s president"—she needs to come up to the expectations of the women of this country. For instance, her women critics—ranging from the fashionably vitriolic Shobha De to the volubly feminist Madhu Kishwar—have dismissed her elevation out of hand, saying that her becoming president will not materially change the condition of women in the country. What does she plan to do to ensure that she doesn’t just remain a symbol? "I will continue to do what I have always done—first as a minister in Maharashtra for 16 years, and then as governor. They should be good indicators..." (Women activists in Rajasthan testify to her keeping an "open house" as governor, meeting women’s rights, citizen’s and minority groups.)

In her assumption speech as president, she had said, "One of the unique features of our national movement, of our freedom struggle, was the equal participation of men and women." But, she tells me, that in the intervening years, "Women have not kept pace with the developments." Why not? "At the time of the freedom struggle, there was a movement, there was a fervour—then things became routine, women returned to their homes, to their roles as housewives," she replies, stressing, "I am not saying that women should not be wives and mothers, but they should all play a role in nation-building in any way they can.They can perform their duties as housewives and still make a contribution, according to their own abilities, for the development of the nation."

What about her own career in politics? Was it hard? "It was not always easy. I had to face many problems—I contested elections to the Maharashtra assembly at 27, before I got married, and won. " What made her keep her maiden name even after she got married, especially at a time when it was not so common to do so? "I had contested elections before I got married—people knew me as Pratibha Patil. So I kept the name. People accepted it—my husband accepted it," she says quietly. Clearly, this is a woman who makes her statements outside the spotlight. Sources close to her add that she was also not unduly upset at the accusations that she lacked stature—she was confident that her varied 45-year-old record as lawyer, MLA, minister, MP, deputy chairperson of the Rajya Sabha and governor made her eminently suitable to become first citizen.

She must be conscious, with two years to go of the current UPA government, that all eyes will follow her right up to the general elections in 2009, when another coalition government might be sworn in. "The Constitution says it all—the roles of the various organs of state, the executive, judiciary and legislature are well-defined. I will just be guided by the Constitution. I don’t really envisage any problem," says Pratibha Patil confidently.

So, who or what is her inspiration? She just utters two words: "Nishkaam bhakti" (Devotion to God without any desire). The conversation ends and in response to an unspoken signal, the ADC enters to escort us out.

See online : Outlook India