THERE is only one thing worse than being remembered and that is not being remembered at all. This is a dilemma that President Pratibha Patil faces as she enters her fourth year in office. The record books will, of course, show she is the first woman president of the republic, though hers has been a rather unremarkable stint till now.
But it would appear from some of her recent engagements that she is keen to make a mark and is busy making up for lost time. According to a senior bureaucrat, far from being a rubber stamp, Patil is on her way to becoming an “ activist president”. And coming as she does from an agricultural background, it was just as well that she chose the subject of farming for a recent extensive brainstorming session with experts.
Last week, she summoned Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar, Union food processing minister Subodh Kant Sahay, the agriculture ministers from Punjab, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Haryana, the last represented by chief minister Bhupinder Hooda who holds the portfolio, besides 50- odd experts, a few dozen bureaucrats from the agriculture ministry and vice- chancellors of about 20 agriculture universities around the country, along with Dr M. S. Swaminathan, to Rashtrapati Bhavan for a “ colloquium on approach to sustainable farming in rain- fed areas”.
I know that is a mouthful, which many ministers from the states had difficulty comprehending. But the fact that the president frequently departed from her prepared text and made extempore remarks meant she knew what she was talking about. The brainstorming session that started around 5 pm went on till about 10 at night and at the dinner that followed, the president mingled with her guests where she is said to have touched on a whole range of subjects.
What makes Patil different from her predecessors is that despite spending a lifetime in politics, she lived in relative political obscurity until her election in 2007. She was a minister in the Maharashtra government but the media began to notice her only when some of her relatives began to indulge in activities that fall under the purview of the Prevention of Corruption Act.
Sonia Gandhi is said to have zeroed in on her only after coalition partners of UPA- I failed to reach a consensus on anyone else. As such, she was neither expected to scale the heights nor plumb the depths that some of her predecessors had in the past 60 years.
There was the humble Rajendra Prasad, the first president. He was followed by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, scholar, philosopher and teacher. Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed is best remembered for signing the Emergency proclamation, allegedly without bothering to even glance through the document, though ironically he was a lawyer by profession.
There was Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, who lost to V. V. Giri in 1969 and came back eight years later to occupy the high office. There was also Giani Zail Singh who opened up the palace on Raisina Hill to the aam aadmi and whose backslapping ways with even visiting heads of state left mandarins in the foreign office red faced.
In between and since, there have been men of eminence who occupied the office and some who, amid all the pomp and ceremony, forgot the presidential script.
In more recent times, it was our good fortune to have APJ Abdul Kalam whose unconventional style led to him being dubbed the “ People’s President”. My most abiding memory of Kalam saab was when he arrived to address a conference organised by India Today magazine in 2004.
He came with a power point presentation, but somewhere along the way, crossed cables or whatever, the system malfunctioned. Before his ADC or the retinue from Rashtrapati Bhavan could react, Kalam saab was already on the podium floor, fixing the cables and I still remember the deafening applause from the vast gathering that greeted the president when the screen came alive.
President Patil is not as tech savvy as Kalam. But of late, in between hosting visiting presidents and releasing the occasional postage stamp, she has been taking serious interest in subjects ranging from judicial reforms to development of the north- eastern states.
Her sudden interest in all things has set tongues wagging and her adversaries are spreading word that she is aiming for another term.
If that happens, she won’t be just India’s first woman president but also first since Rajendra Prasad in 1950 to serve a second consecutive term.
Wait two years to know.