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Should Pratibha Patil be President?

If a candidate in a US presidential election stood accused as Pratibha Patil is, he or she would have immediately responded to the allegations, writes Karan Thapar.
Hindustan Times | By Karan Thapar
UPDATED ON JUL 07, 2007 11:35 PM IST

There are times when I wish we were more American. If a candidate in a US presidential election stood accused as Pratibha Patil is, he or she would have immediately responded to the allegations. The facts would have been made public, documents to prove them circulated to the press and a reasonably objective picture of guilt or innocence might have emerged. In India, on the other hand, we have a proliferation of charges matched by an equal profusion of denials but no clarity and certainly no resolution. Consequently, most of us don’t know how to answer the question : ‘Should Pratibha Patil be President of India’?

Let me therefore specify the issues I consider of paramount importance and which Mrs. Patil must address. Depending on how she answers, I think we’ll be able to respond to that question. And I’ll restrict myself to two areas that are most disturbing.

First, the Pratibha Mahila Sahakari Bank. Even though Pratibha Patil was not the first Chairperson and only held the job for a month and eight days, was she the individual who effectively ran the bank? Arun Shourie points to a Board Resolution dated 22nd January, 2002, number 23, which he claims authorised Mrs. Patil to appoint the Board of Directors and the Chief Executive. Was such a resolution passed? If it was, it could prove that Pratibha Patil called the shots.

Did her brother, nephews and nieces receive loans from the bank and, furthermore, did some or all of them default. Priyaranjan Dasmunsi has circulated documents to show that three ladies, alleged to be Mrs. Patil’s sisters-in-law and niece, did not receive waivers of interest as Arun Shourie and the Express have claimed but, in fact, repaid the principal amount and the interest due as per regulations. But that doesn’t fully answer the charge that others took loans which were not returned. They are alleged to include Dilipsingh Patil (brother), Kishor Dilipsingh Patil and Randhirsingh Dilipsingh Patil (nephews) and Rajeshwari Kishorsingh Patil (niece).

Is the employees union right in making three additional claims? That Dilipsingh Patil, her brother, had access to a bank phone at his residence (No. 224672) which he used for his personal stock market transactions and ran up a bill of Rs 20 lakh? That unlawful loans were extended to Mrs. Patil’s sugar factory, the Sant Muktabai Cooperative? And that members of Mrs. Patil’s family were employed by the bank disregarding SC/ST reservations?

Finally, are the President, Vice President and Secretary of the employees union right in claiming, as apparently they did in a letter dated 13th March 2002 to Mrs. Patil, that “there is a threat to our lives and to the lives of our family members from you”?

I believe if Mrs. Patil answers these four issues honestly, fully and with an opportunity to be politely but firmly cross-questioned, our concerns with her involvement with the Pratibha Bank will either be borne out or allayed. Alternatively, her continued silence could be misconstrued.

This leaves the matter of her views on forced sterilisation of people with hereditary diseases, expressed in the Maharashtra Assembly as Health Minister on the 10th of December 1975. It might be an exaggeration to say they bear a disturbing resemblance to Hitler’s 1933 ‘Law for the Prevention of Hereditary Diseased Offspring’ but until Mrs. Patil clears her position, this is not an illogical comparison. Worse still, Mrs. Patil did not specify what she meant by hereditary disease. You could argue that they span a range from heart disorders to bad eyesight. Diabetes, which comes somewhere in the middle, is amongst the most common in India. We have nearly 20 million cases and they could rise to 70 million by 2050.

Will Mrs. Patil apologise for her comments in the Assembly? Will she, at least, withdraw them and say she has rethought her position? If neither, would that not suggest that even as a candidate for the presidency, the highest office in the land, which would make her a symbol of the Indian people, she still believes in forcible sterilisation?

Silence on either of the two subjects I have covered would not be proof of guilt but certainly suggestive of it. At the very least it would show she’s indifferent to charges that impugn her integrity and degrade her beliefs. In that event I know how I would answer the question ‘should she be President’? She may have the votes, but she’s not fit for the post.

But first, let’s wait for Pratibha Patil to speak.

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