After the spacious confines of Rashtrapati Bhavan, it would appear that President Pratibha Patil would like to move to an accommodation of the sort she is used to and then some. Ms Patil finds herself at the heart of a controversy in which she has been allotted around 2.60 lakh square feet of land in the Pune cantonment area to build a post-retirement home.
Now Rashtrapati Bhavan may go blue in the face saying that there is no illegality in the allotment of this land, but with the President being the supreme commander of the armed forces, there are bound to be suspicions that the land was not given without more than a little pressure. Perhaps, defence minister AK Antony who is known to be absolutely above board in all his dealings may like to clarify the matter. It is no one’s case that Ms Patil be denied a roof over her head after discharging such onerous duties in the service of the State.
Former presidents are indeed entitled to official accommodation under the President’s Emoluments and Pension Act, 1951. But under the rules, a retired president is entitled to a bungalow of 4,498 square feet if government houses are available and 2,000 square feet if rented. In fact, almost all past presidents have settled for bungalows in Delhi within these specifications.
No one in their right minds will believe that this allotment to Ms Patil has been at the cost of housing for defence personnel. But coming at a time when the government is weighed down by land scams, the Office of the President does not come out smelling of roses. It just seems bad form to take government land at the taxpayers’ expense so that one may have a comfortable retirement.
The controversy will once again raise the issue of entitlements for politicians. In other democracies, once a person holding high office retires or demits office, the State does not provide accommodation or benefits for their lifetime. They go back to being ordinary citizens. US presidents are given security and a pension, serving US senators are not given free housing and former British prime ministers are left to fend for themselves on a pension.
The largesse that our political worthies bestow on themselves in perpetuity is more in keeping with tinpot dictatorships of the sort that a Robert Mugabe would run. At a time when there is a great deal of public disillusionment with the political class, it is hardly circumspect for someone of the stature of the President to be seen helping herself to undue largesse, whether or not this is technically and legally kosher.
It will be seen only as the act of a privileged person who expects everything to be on the house.