Patil’s presidency smooth but lacklustre


New Delhi : Lacklustre, unmotivating and homespun. As Pratibha Patil prepared to walk into history as India’s first woman president, analysts struggled to encapsulate her five-year tenure that was mostly uneventful but ended with the taint of controversy over her foreign visits, clemency petitions and post-retirement home.

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The 77-year-old, who assumed office as the country’s 12th president after defeating former vice president Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, ends her term Wednesday when she hands the presidential baton to veteran Congress leader Pranab Mukherjee.

Patil, a familiar grandmotherly figure with her traditional border saris and bindi, enjoyed good rapport with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and there were no marked tensions with the executive.

But there were a few high points and, unlike predecessor A.P.J. Abdul Kalam who grew popular as “people’s president”, Patil’s tenure did not evoke any catchphrase.

According to political analyst Aswini K. Ray, Patil’s five years were “lacklustre”.

“Her tenure has not been particularly exciting. In fairness to her, no scandals came from Raisina Hill except controversy related to her post-retirement residence in Pune which she decided to forgo,” Ray, a former professor of political science at the Jawaharlal Nehru University here, told IANS.

Ray said controversies over Patil travelling with “retinue of relatives” and money spent on her foreign trips were avoidable.

However, Patil did make some interventions in the sectors of women empowerment, greening the environment and rainfed agriculture.
Having worked to improve the lot of women in her long career as a political activist, she set up a committee of governors in 2008 “to study and recommend strategies for speedy socio-economic development and empowerment of women”.

As a result, the government set up the National Mission for Empowerment of Women in 2010 followed by a National Resource Centre for Women.

She also conceived Roshni, an environment management initiative to make the sprawling President’s Estate a green habitat by practising efficient use of energy.

Convinced that the dryland and rainfed areas in the country had the potential of becoming the cradle for improving agriculture productivity, Patil set up a committee of governors in 2011 that has prepared a roadmap to facilitate re-engineering of rainfed agriculture in the country.

Rashtrapati Bhavan spokesperson Archana Datta rejected descriptions of the president’s tenure as lacklustre and unmotivating and said she worked relentlessly and actively for the causes close to her including empowerment of women, boosting production in rainfed areas and fostering corporate-agriculture partnership.

“She (the president) silently worked for her causes. Never wanted to flaunt it. She wanted to work in a quiet way,” Datta said.

The spokesperson said Patil met over 150,000 people at Rashtrapati Bhavan during her term and extensively toured the country.

Because of Patil’s green initiatives, the President’s Estate became the first such campus to get ISO-14001 certification, Datta added.

Senior journalist S. Nihal Singh said Patil’s tenure had been undistinguished in many ways. “She was adequate and rather homespun,” he said.

Most controversies arose during the last leg of her presidency.

Disclosures that her many foreign trips, with her family, had cost the exchequer more than Rs.205 crore, surpassing that of her predecessors, saw a rash of bad publicity. Her office clarified that these were made at the request of the government to promote India’s relations.

Patil gave up a five-acre plot in Pune she had selected for her post-retirement years after reports that it belonged to war widows. She is now moving into another bungalow in the city.

Another controversy that hit Patil’s presidency was about her going on a mercy overdrive and commuting the death sentence of 35 convicts to life imprisonment. Her office said she had taken the decisions after due consideration on the basis of advice given by the government.

Born on Dec 19, 1934, in Jalagaon district of Maharashtra, Patil started her professional career as a lawyer. She was elected from Jalgaon to the state legislature at a young age of 27 and has not lost an election in her life.

Patil, who was governor of Rajasthan before she came to Rashtrapati Bhavan, was a surprise choice in 2007 following talks between the Congress and Left parties. Interestingly, Pranab Mukherjee was looked upon as a suitable presidential candidate by many even in 2007.

As supreme commander of the defence forces, Patil visited forward areas in Jammu and Kashmir, flew in the Sukhoi SU-30MKI fighter jet and went atop a T-20 tank while witnessing an exercise in Rajasthan.

The septuagenarian outfitted in military overalls and G-suits – with the bindi firmly in place – made headlines all over. And that’s an image of India’s first woman president that will live on.