I don't like President Pratibha Patil. And it's personal. I'm sure I wouldn't have been, well, impolite if she had been a lawyer, a politician or even a governor of a state. But being the president of India requires some qualities that Patil doesn't have. In fact, she has qualities that are totally un-presidential, unless some warped branding of India was being sought.
There has been much hullabaloo about her trotting up a bill of Rs 205 crore while travelling across 22 countries. Frankly, I would have thought the Indian president should have visited more countries in her five years in office than Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Bhutan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Spain, Poland, Russia, Tajikistan, Britain, Cyprus, China, Laos, Cambodia, the United Arab Emirates, Syria, Mauritius, South Korea, Switzerland and Austria. No New Zealand or the United States. No Bangladesh or Australia either. And I certainly don't want her trip to South Africa later this year to be called off just because some penny-pinching homebodies think a travelling president is just a holidaying president. It's about showing a bit of us in a foreign country.
And those raising a din about the size of the delegations that have accompanied Patil over the last five years — ministers, MPs, senior officials as well as 'supporting' and security staff, family members and presidential guests (not to mention journalists) — the president is a ceremonial figure representing India abroad. You can't have her at the Élysée Palace (she's not gone to France!) with just her hubby and a dandy khansama. For crying out loud, we're not Samoa or Denmark.
As the head of State, Patil's shortcomings are not that she travels too much, or that she's high maintenance, or that her son has been in some kind of lafda over unaccounted cash. The problem is staring right at you if you care to see it. And if you think that I'm being extremely shallow in judging an Indian president by the way she appears in form and persona — as opposed to latching on to the richness of her inner life — well, then I must have got the job description of the Indian presidency totally wrong.
We've not always had mental giants or ambassadors of elegance as presidents. Zail Singh may have been a precursor to Santa-Banta SMS jokes but he had a, well, personality. APJ Abdul Kalam had a way with kids and pulpit-banging patriotism that continues to go down well with nerds. Again, he was a 'presence'. Truly 'presidential' presidents in the recent past such as KR Narayanan may be hard to come by (and perhaps not sought after for harbouring a mind of their own), but even in the fish tank of loyalists from which the UPA government selected its nomination for the 12th president of India in 2007, surely there could have been someone more — sorry, I simply can't avoid the word — presentable.
OK, so she plays table tennis. And frankly, everyone above the age of 70 looks silly in a fighter pilot uniform. But we're talking about a grandma figure who, as Rajasthan governor and just before becoming president, told journalists that a dead godman had entered the body of a spiritual leader at the Mount Abu ashram she was visiting and had had “a conversation” with her (www.youtube.com/watch?v=YlbHh404-Xg).
So even if I discount the sheer wince factor she generates when at official functions, our samosa president appears — and in the presidency, appearance is pretty much the whole point of the post — to be something that walked out of a time capsule.
Politeness never let me air my views of our present president before. But with presidential elections scheduled in July, I hope the government, keeping the usual loyalty, political correctness etc in mind, nominates someone more 'presidential'. My suggestion would be Waheeda Rehman, a pan-national iconic figure, grace incarnate, a Padma Bhushan recipient and with all the right 'political' parameters. Unless, of course, the ruling Congress thinks a Muslim woman from the South doesn't fit the bill for the 13th president of the Republic of India.