The Absent President


Pratibha Patil is the first woman President of India. Is that the only way she will be remembered?

Urvashi Butalia, Feminist Writer and Activist

Photo: AFP

MY FIRST and only encounter with President Pratibha Devisingh Patil happened about a year ago during an official ceremony at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Diminutive, covered from head to toe, she smiled, offered namastes and graciously directed people towards the camera. But that was where it ended: I did not sense the person, or her presence, none even of the pomp and glory that accompanies a ceremonial Head of State enacting her role in impressive, historical surroundings.

Could it be because she is a woman, I asked myself. Could it be her stature? The fact that she is, in appearance at least, what one might call a “traditional” woman? I tried to place other women in her place. Suppose, for the sake of speculation, that instead of Pratibha Patil, the person standing had been, say, activist Aruna Roy, or historian Romila Thapar, or Planning Commission member Sayeeda Hameed. What would we have seen in those poises? Passion, humour, gravitas, integrity — above all, a sense of a presence.

Why does President Patil seem lacking in this? Or why is it that we don’t see any of it? True, the presidential post is a symbolic one, and yet, even though all governments might like to place someone pliant there, the person isn’t meant to be a cipher, a non-person. Nor have previous presidents been thus: each has, in his own way, placed the stamp of his particular personality on the post — S Radhakrishnan, Zakir Hussain, KR Narayanan, APJ Abdul Kalam to name a few.

Years ago, when Sonia Gandhi led Pratibha Patil to the presidential post, the president-elect issued a reassuring statement that she would not be a ‘rubber stamp’ president. Perhaps not — but it is true that her tenure has been singularly unremarkable, barring the odd foreign visit and the recurring family and personal embarrassments from which she has had to distance herself. She has now and again reiterated her commitment to women, children and education, but there does not seem to have been much action to match the words.

Sometimes I think it’s such a shame, and such an opportunity lost. Five years that could have made a real difference. After the Muslim, the Sikh, the Dalit, the Hindu, we finally had a woman: a historic opportunity, five decades after Independence, to demonstrate that not only can women occupy such a position, but they can endow it with meaning and dignity, invest it with energy and bring to it a vision that is the hallmark of their particular personality. That is the saddest part, for it will probably take another six decades before this country is ready for another woman president. If for nothing else but that, it was incumbent on President Patil to make something of the presidency.

Patil’s tenure has been singularly unremarkable, barring the odd foreign visit

I’m not saying she should have turned her attention to women — the expectation that women in positions of power will automatically attend to women has time and again proven to be misplaced. But that a woman president could be a good, intelligent and engaged president for everyone, would have done the presidential office, and women in particular, proud.

I’m not even complaining, as many activists have done, about the fact that she keeps her head covered, that the sleeves of her blouses go all the way to her wrists. To me, the way she dresses is her choice, and in some ways not germane to the discussion (I mean, for example, had she put on trousers and a shirt and still been herself, would it have been any different?) But when you, or for that matter, anyone, steps into such a post, they take with them not only the burden of considerable responsibility, but also of huge expectations, hope, fairness, justice and impartiality.

Perhaps there’s time still. A few days ago, on 14 May, a delegation of women went to meet President Patil to put before her the fate of tribal teacher-activist Soni Sori. They drew the President’s attention to the brutal, custodial sexual torture inflicted on Soni by the Chhattisgarh Police, that has been confirmed by the medical report of a Kolkata hospital, and that SP Ankit Garg, under whose direction the tortures were inflicted, had actually received the President’s Gallantry Award. They have asked for an independent inquiry into the award, and that the President turn her attention to the plight of other tribal women held in jails and who have suffered a similar fate. Might we see action on this? If yes, there’s hope for this office still.


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