Quiet Pratibha Patil sails through – with minor hiccups


New Delhi : A year after she created history by becoming India’s first woman president, Pratibha Patil’s innings in Rashtrapati Bhavan has largely been marked by reticence, with many feeling she needs more time to come into her own, especially on widening the role of women.

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The 72-year-old lawyer-turned-politician who brings with her a wealth of experience as a politician and an administrator completes a year Friday in the 340-room presidential palace, possibly the largest presidential mansion in the world, and except for some minor hitches her term has for the most part been non-controversial.

In the run-up to the trust vote debate in parliament and the political drama that preceded it many anticipated that Patil would be thrown into the spotlight in the event of a threat to the United Progressive Alliance government.

But that danger has passed without her having to act even as she was glued to the television set watching the tense proceedings, skipping all internal briefings.

“She has not been very visible like her predecessor, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam but it takes a while to make a personal impact and I guess she is taking her time assessing the body politic before she asserts herself. We must not jump into any conclusions,” says Akila Shivdas, director of the Centre for Advocacy and Research here.

Even Congress MP Krishna Tirath has a similar take.

“Look, she has started off well. There is a quiet dignity she has brought in to the office of president. It takes a while for her to make a bearing on women’s issues and I am sure she will take it forward in the remaining part of her tenure.”

It was Patil’s maiden 12-day-long foreign visit to three Latin American countries – Brazil, Mexico and Chile – in April that created front page news for reasons other than matters of state.

Her son, Rajendra Singh Shekhawat, reported breach of protocol of making a personal trip to the US for visiting a university during the tour created a minor storm. But both the foreign office and Rashtrapati Bhavan were quick to deny that any procedure was violated.

While there, Patil gave protocol jitters as she inadvertently passed the Mexican flag at the ceremonial reception without bowing but quickly went back after her attention was drawn to it by the Mexican Guard Commander.

Patil, who was inspecting a guard of honour, walked past the flag without realising that her Mexican counterpart Felipe Calderon had stopped to pay respect to his country’s flag.

Even Patil’s trip to Jammu and Kashmir, where she visited forward areas near the Line of Control and a bunker located at 9,600 feet, had some share of excitement.

Photographs of a smiling Patil brandishing an AK-47 assault weapon in newspapers drew diverse political reactions.

In his blog, National Conference leader Omar Abdullah said: “They say a picture speaks a thousand words and I would have been thrilled to see a photograph of the president talking to kids, as a grandmother would, in some far-flung hamlet about the promise of a better future rather then this reminder of the one object that has caused so much death and destruction over the past 18 years.”

“The photograph was of President Patil brandishing an AK-47 and smiling…I know she’s the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, but the photograph reminded me of a rather forgettable Sylvester Stallone movie – ‘Stop or My Mom Will Shoot’,” Omar wrote.

Despite Patil’s rather low-profile first year in office, Rashtrapati Bhavan officials say the official website has emerged as the second most popular portal after the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE).

The website, designed by the National Informatics Centre, reportedly receives more than 43,000 hits everyday and till date has registered nearly 1.4 million hits since it was designed a few months ago.

“On many occasions she reaches out to people who turn to her for help,” said an official in the president’s secretariat.

On one particular occasion, some recall how Patil made a passionate speech on women’s security at work places, insisting that strict action be taken against those who indulge in acts like sexual harassment.

“They (women) should work determinedly for their own empowerment. One important step in this direction is imparting physical education – like judo and karate – for self-defence to girl students from a very early age so as to make them physically strong and to build-up self-confidence to face the challenges of life,” urged Patil at an Asian ministerial conference.

The president’s advice came in the wake of increased cases of molestation and rapes reported from different parts of the country.

Communist Party of India-Marxist leader Brinda Karat has the last word. “We have been happy to see that our first women president has raised important and relevant issues in the past year. And I am sure this will increase in the coming years and she will continue with this good work.”