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Monday, May 11, 2009

A conversation with President Pratibha Patil

T RASHTRAPATI NILAYAM: Heads of state in India rarely do on-the-record interviews but fortunately for the media and the public, they do have `conversations.'

Indian Presidents have a lot to do and say. Aside from their constitutional functions and duties, they travel widely, deliver broad-sweep speeches in philosophical vein on socio-economic, cultural, national, and international themes, and interact with hundreds and even thousands of people across the country.

But it is in the nature of the job that Presidents rarely do on-the-record interviews. This is because of the restraints imposed on the high but non-executive constitutional office. These restraints essentially mean that India’s head of state, like the British monarch, must steer clear of commenting on contentious issues in public. There are well-merited exceptions to this rule — as when K.R. Narayanan as Vice President characterised the December 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid as the “greatest tragedy India has faced since the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi” and then in 2002, as President, spoke out against the Gujarat pogrom.

But there are also practical reasons for not doing interviews. Give one and the entire media world will beat a path to your door clamouring for interviews, leaving the President time for little else. This at any rate sums up the present thinking in a Rashtrapati Bhavan occupied by the 12th President of India, the first woman to occupy the highest office in the land.

Varied experience

Seventy-four-year-old Pratibha Devisingh Patil, who was sworn in on July 25, 2007, is a quiet-spoken head of state. A lawyer by training, she has brought to her job decades of political, legislative, and administrative experience, in Maharashtra and elsewhere. She clearly believes in playing it by the book. Understanding her role sensitively, she has observed the constitutional restraints to the point of being non-obtrusive, in contrast (in this last respect) to her charismatic predecessor. The surprise is that, in terms of activity, President Patil has had (what the Rashtrapati Bhavan website, the second most-visited site in government after the website of the Central Board of Secondary Education, accurately describes as) a “hectic” first year — now actually 17 months — in office. Just go to to learn or scan the details.

Heads of state in India may rarely do on-the-record “interviews” — for perfectly sound reasons — but fortunately for the media and the public, they do have “conversations” and other forms of informal interaction with journalists and others. I had the opportunity for an extended conversation ahead of and over a working breakfast when I recently called on President Patil at Rashtrapati Nilayam at Bolarum, in suburban Hyderabad. Her husband, Dr. D.R. Shekhawat, joined us in the meeting.

Integrative role

Rashtrapati Nilayam, a 148-year-old single-storied heritage building that stands in the midst of 95 acres, is one of the two presidential retreats, the other being the 158-year-old hilltop Retreat Building at Mashobra in Shimla. The location of the two retreats, the presidentofindia website points out, is “indicative of the integrative role of the Office of the President of India,” symbolising the “unity of our country and…of our diverse cultures and people.” In the past, some Rashtrapatis skipped the southern retreat for reasons that are unclear. But President Patil, who plays it by the book, revived the practice in December 2007 and came again with her family for a two-week stay in the fourth week of December 2008.

The rules and conventions for reporting conversations with the President are pretty well understood by Indian journalists. You don’t record the conversation but you can take pictures; you can reflect the Rashtrapati’s thinking on social, philosophical, constitutional, and other large issues; and sometimes you can do direct quotes. But it is best to approach the whole thing in a spirit of appreciating that the position of the head of state, to recall President K.R. Narayanan’s elegant 1998 turn of phrase, “has to be used with… a philosophy of indirect approach.”

The focus of our conversation on January 4 was on what President Patil termed “the eradication of social evils.” In her public speeches and in the suggestions she has made to the political government, she has had a lot to say on the need to overcome extreme poverty, gender inequality, female foeticide, maternal and child malnutrition, and specific “social evils.” She has dwelt on the economic costs attached to these social deficits. She has called particular attention to the “tremendous scope for convergence” in the implementation of diverse welfare and development schemes.

As the Rashtrapati Bhavan website makes clear, President Patil has also offered her reflections on key issues like women’s empowerment, expansion of education, agriculture and rural development, national security, and “above all, spreading a sense of compassion towards the underprivileged.”

The immediate context of our conversation on social trends was the buoyant (until the recent economic slowdown) situation of, and growth trends in, the news media in India — in comparison with what has been happening in developed countries. The President and Dr. Shekhawat, a scientist by training, showed a lot of interest in the subject and we also briefly discussed the proper functions and roles of the press and other news media. In this connection, I mentioned the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai (of which I am a founding trustee) as a new and hearteningly successful non-commercial venture in post-graduate journalism education. I noted that hundreds of young women and men (the former a clear majority), coming from all parts of India and to some extent also from other SAARC countries, have been educated and trained over the past decade and were beginning to make some kind of qualitative difference on the English-language media scene.

To my surprise, the President questioned me in detail about the ACJ programme and curriculum. Apart from the intensive stream work, the backbone of the programme, I mentioned the first trimester courses “Key Issues,” “Tools of the Modern Journalist,” and “Media, Law and Society,” the various specialised electives in the second and third trimesters — and “Covering Deprivation,” which has become something of a trademark course at the ACJ.

President Patil’s suggestion was that we should introduce in the ACJ curriculum a course on “Eradication of Social Evils.” She then went into specifics, highlighting three major social challenges she has had experience in observing and dealing with as a legislator and Minister in Maharashtra, as a Member of Parliament, and as Governor of Rajasthan (2004-2007).

Child marriage

The first social evil she mentioned was child marriage, still prevalent in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Bihar, and perhaps to a small extent elsewhere in India. Girls were still being married at the age of 10, 11, 12, 13. They had their first child when they attained maturity, had five or six children in many cases, and were crushed by family worries and chores. Maternal and infant mortality rates continued to be high. Such circumstances bred malnutrition and illness. “They can never come out of poverty,” President Patil observed poignantly. She has even coined a slogan, based on her gubernatorial experience in Rajasthan: “One child marriage has ten ill effects.”

I had mentioned that as part of the required “Covering Deprivation” course, the ACJ sent its students on field visits to different parts of India, to observe and report on an aspect of mass deprivation. Remembering this, President Patil suggested that the ACJ might also consider sending its students to Rajasthan to study and report on the social evil of child marriage.

The second social evil President Patil discussed in our conversation was alcohol addiction. She recalled her early-1970s experience, as Cabinet Minister for Social Welfare in the Maharashtra government, when the State went though a severe three-year drought.

In a pioneering intervention, the State government had introduced the Maharashtra Employment Guarantee Scheme (EGS), a sustained public works intervention that has been commended by the United Nations Development Programme and by scholars like Jean Dreze for its remarkable scale, sweep, and sustained reach. The EGS, which was launched in 1972, given a statutory basis in 1977, and became operative as a law in 1979, guaranteed employment to all persons above the age of 18 who were willing to do unskilled manual work on a piece-rate basis. It sought to supplement the inadequate income of landless and land-poor families from agricultural work by minimum guaranteed work, at a defined wage, in government-financed public works programmes. Launched as a response to a crisis, it has continued as a major state intervention to mitigate the harsh edges of rural poverty, sustain household welfare, and contribute in some measure to the development of the rural economy.

President Patil recalled that EGS had already begun, in the early 1970s, to make a difference to the incomes of agricultural labouring families. But what about household welfare? During her visits to work-sites as Minister for Social Welfare, she was pleased of course to see the crèches for little children. But she also asked officials about the uses to which the additional incomes were put — and one enterprising Collector did a sample survey in a rural district.

The findings were an eye-opener. About 50 per cent of the landless and land-poor households saw some savings, including bank deposits, the repayment of loans to banks, the purchase of a little jewellery, or money set aside for a daughter’s marriage. The remaining 50 per cent “squandered the money in drinks and gambling,” the President recalled. “For the removal of poverty,” she concluded, “only giving money is not adequate. The child and wife suffer. If 50 per cent are in this atmosphere, how will we remove poverty?”

So the eradication of alcohol, and other forms of, addiction was a socio-economic challenge. President Patil emphasised the need for regular and imaginative schemes to bring alcoholics out of their addiction, which would only ruin them and their families.

The third issue that figured in our conversation was women’s empowerment and the establishment of a gender-just society. The President has, in her public speeches, spoken admiringly of “the pro-women leanings in our constitutional philosophy”; the enactment of welfare legislation to protect women and end discrimination against them and their “subordinate status…in society”; the “path-breaking 73rd and 74th Amendments” providing ensured representation for women in urban and rural local bodies; progressive changes in the rules of evidence and legal procedure; and women “competing equally with men” in various professions, including the law, that used to be male preserves.

She has also raised the question whether “the stand-alone presence of the wide-ranging laws in our legal landscape can sufficiently ensure gender-justice.” She has called upon civil society groups, especially lawyers, to be vigilant so that the legal provisions are “implemented effectively and fairly with the right modicum of sensitivity towards women.”

In this context, the President has publicly raised questions about the gap between the intent of the law and its implementation and effects. The Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act was enacted in 1996 but the first conviction under it came only in 2006. But everybody is aware of the extent of the misuse of diagnostic techniques to commit female foeticide, which in turn has depressed the sex ratio in the 0-6 age group in several States, especially in northern and western India.

A controversy

There has been some contention over another issue raised by President Patil at a national conference on women lawyers and teachers at Yavatmal in Maharashtra where she spoke of women themselves not being “innocent of abusing women” with reference to dowry complaints. Giving me a print-out of a news item titled “Pratibha’s dowry remark steams up women” and then the text of her December 26, 2008 speech (see, the President pointed out the need for a “balanced approach” based on a close study of the situation on the ground. I noted with interest that President Patil did not want to say anything further on the subject. She was clearly observing the restraints attaching to her office.

In her speech addressing what educated and legally trained women could do, she regretted the fact that “at times women have played an unsavoury, catalytic role in perpetrating violence” against the daughter-in-law, the mother-in-law, or female domestic help. But the President also called attention to instances of protective legal provisions meant to benefit women being “subjected to distortion and misuse to wreak petty vengeance and to settle scores.” She cited some surveys that concluded that six to ten per cent of dowry complaints were “false” and “registered primarily to settle scores.” The “bottom-line,” she concluded in this paragraph of her speech, was “the fair invocation of legal provisions and their objective and honest implementation.”

President Patil, trained as a lawyer, is particularly concerned over the implications of the statistics released by the National Crime Records Bureau: of the 215,733 people arrested in 2007 under anti-dowry laws, 85-94 per cent were acquitted by the courts.

Several women activists have disagreed with President Patil’s remarks on women participating at times in the distortion and misuse of protective anti-dowry legal provisions “to wreak petty vengeance and to settle scores.” The main points made by the critics is that there is “no proper implementation” of anti-dowry laws and other laws concerning women, that men in general police and control the law, and also that (to quote Girija Vyas, chairperson of the National Commission on Women) “no woman likes to break her family…she approaches the court only when she cannot bear the torture any more” in a social context where many women are not aware of the specific legal provisions under which they can seek relief and redress.

What is clear is that the issues at stake need much more in-depth study and discussion than they seem to have got so far.

Role of the President

What is the precise role of the President in the constitutional scheme and in practice, as the office has evolved over the decades? A decade ago, in one of those rare exceptions (made to mark the completion of the celebrations of 50 years of Independence), President K.R. Narayanan gave an interesting answer to a question I raised after pointing out that there had been a few controversies, for example, during the passage of the Hindu Code Bill, during the Emergency, and also when there was public talk in the 1980s about the impending ‘dismissal’ of a Prime Minister by the President. This was in a recorded ‘conversation’ broadcast on Doordarshan and All India Radio on August 14, 1998 (see ‘President in Conversation’ under Resources on

“My image of a President before I came here,” President Narayanan responded memorably, “was that of a rubber-stamp President, to be frank…But having come here, I find that the image is not quite correct…My image of a President is of a working President, not an executive President, but a working President, and working within the four corners of the Constitution. It gives very little direct power or influence to him to interfere in matters or affect the course of events, but there is a subtle influence of the office of the President on the executive and the other arms of the government and on the public as a whole. It is a position which has to be used with…a philosophy of indirect approach. There are one or two things, which you can directly do in very critical times. But otherwise, this indirect influence that you can exercise on the affairs of the State is the most important role he can play.”

Every President comes to the office with her or his distinct capabilities, outlook, approach, interests, and style. There was no time, during the January 4 conversation at Rashtrapati Nilayam, to ask President Pratibha Patil about her ideas and ‘image’ of the presidency. I do intend to ask her if I get another opportunity. But we can certainly make an informed guess that it is likely to be something like the “philosophy of indirect approach.”

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