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The role of our Rashtrapatis

As Kalam's term nears its end, I feel his name will go down in our history as a great leader, writes Khushwant Singh.

india Updated: Dec 02, 2006 02:47 IST

The President of the Republic of India is not a mere figurehead who says what the Prime Minister or the government of the day wants him to say, putting his thumb impression on documents placed before him. He is a figurehead, a father-figure, a man of wisdom and a guru. When all other avenues have been explored and exhausted, people turn to him for justice.

At a small family gathering comprising my daughter (an ex-editor of children books), grand-daughter (a lecturer in a college), a retired diplomat, his wife (an assistant editor of a widely-read weekly journal) and their daughter (a US-based research scholar), I asked how many presidents they could name. Our joint efforts totalled six. Actually we have had 11. I concluded that our rashtrapatis fell in three categories: memorable, forgotten and forgettable.

They came from three backgrounds: academics, politicians, and civil servants. And still further, I concluded that of the three categories I had devised, academics did better than politicians or civil servants. Three readily came to my mind: Radhakrishnan, Zakir Hussain and the present APJ Abdul Kalam.

One of the problems every President has had to face is dealing with prime ministers and the government of the day. Babu Rajendra Prasad was a formidable politician before he was elected our first Rashtrapati. He didn’t see eye-to-eye with Pandit Nehru, our first Prime Minister.

There came a time when both ignored each other. Nehru never wanted Rajendra Babu to return to Rashtrapati Bhawan again. He got on much better with Dr Radhakrishnan and consulted him on important matters. Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi was a headstrong woman, who wanted the President to do her bidding. She reduced Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed and Giani Zail Singh to pulp.

When she wanted to impose Emergency, Fakhruddin signed the declaration on the dotted line. Giani Zail Singh’s tenure was even more pathetic. He was a wily politician and against heavy odds managed to remain chief minister of Punjab for a full term of five years. He also made a good home minister in Indira Gandhi’s Cabinet. Though Gyaniji had good knowledge of Punjabi and Urdu, his English was rustic and gave birth to many sardarji jokes. He made a poor start by proclaiming that if Indira Gandhi asked him to sweep her floor, he would do so happily. It was not the kind of sycophancy one expected of a President. She ordered him to put Punjab under military rule; he did so. She had the Army invade the Golden Temple to get rid of Bhindranwale. He pretended he knew nothing about Operation Blue Star till after it had taken place. No one believed him. He later decorated officers who had taken part in it. He was at his weakest when Mrs Gandhi was assassinated and anti-Sikh violence broke out all over northern India. He just wrung his hands in defence without leaving Rashtrapati Bhawan.

The Sikhs never forgave the first Sikh President. Many people expected Gyaniji to become the first common peoples’ President: he fell short of their expectations.

When APJ Abdul Kalam was named President, I had many doubts. I was aware of him as a space scientist; the recognition he got ended in a Bharat Ratna in 1997. He did not have an imposing presence: his unruly mop of hair and short stature was not awe-inspiring. When I was asked to review his Ignited Minds, I was determined to cut him to size. After reading his book, I took a complete turn around. The book inspired me; I lauded it as one which deserved to be made compulsory reading in schools and colleges. I become one of his millions of fans. As his term nears its close, I feel his name will go down in our history as a great leader.

The career of APJ Abdul Kalam has been summed up in an illustrated book, Indomitable Spirit (Rajpal). It will reignite minds of all Indians.

Women who made a difference

Malvika Singh, editor of Seminar, has compiled profiles of 13 Indian women who made a difference in our lives in recent years, written by people who knew them.

They are: Mother Teresa, Mahasweta Devi, Nargis Dutt, Begum Akhtar, Amrita Sher Gil, Rukmini Arundale, Jayalalithaa, Mayawati, Lakshmi Sehgal, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, Pupul Jayakar, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya and Homai Vyarawalla.

Her anthology is entitled, The Iconic Women of Modern India (Penguin). I don’t dispute the selection because all the ladies are worth knowing. However, there were, and are, many others who deserved to be included: Sarojini Naidu, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, Sucheta Kripalani, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, Shabana Azmi, Shivani, Mahadevi Verma, Kamala Surayya Das, Tavleen Singh, Barkha Dutt, Shahnaz Hussain, Vasundhara Raje, Qurratulain Haider, Ela Bhatt, Kiran Bedi, the Mangeshkar sisters, Amrita Anandamayi Ma and Anandmurti Ma.

My second caveat is that all the profiles are laudatory. Though these ladies deserve praise, they had weaknesses which should also have been highlighted to make them more life-like.

Mayawati has an explosive temper — a trait shared by a few other ladies in politics like Mamta Banerjee and Uma Bharti. Jayalalithaa, though attractive, charming and lucid in her statements, is superstitious, eg the additional ‘a’ at the end of her name, (the same as Shobhaa De), belief in astrology, horoscopes and omens.

Having said all this, let me add all the profiles are well-written and the compilation makes good, informative reading.

Wanted new car

A friend who had an old car required frequent repairs. The mechanics of the auto workshop got fed up of repairing the jalopy. One morning when he took his car to the workshop, the senior mechanic checked the engine thoroughly and said, “I’m afraid you have more of a problem than I anticipated. Your battery needs a new car.”

(Contributed by Reetan Ganguly, Tezpur)