It may have been sheer coincidence, it certainly was painfully inopportune. When the nation was recalling the simplicity of Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, the emergence of reports of his successor, Pratibha Patil, being involved “in correspondence” with the Centre over a personal benefit impacted the aura of the exalted office under focus. For “ex” does not relieve those who have held that office of the responsibility of adhering to the highest standards of probity.
The issue is both trivial and disturbing. Mrs Patil disliked the official car she had been allotted, preferred to use her personal vehicle when travelling in her “home town”, Pune, and is receiving a fuel allowance. She, however, demands an official car for long-distance travel and has been told the rules do not provide for both. It is one or the other.
What is demeaning is that this would add to a list of rather controversial actions – her seeking a plot of defence land for building her post-retirement home, and being pressured to return gifts that ought to have stayed in Rashtrapati Bhawan being among the most prominent of them – and adds to the public dismay over their leaders seeking goodies for themselves while the common folk live in miserable conditions. It must, however, be stressed that Mrs Patil is not alone in such craving – a plea for “suitable accommodation” for former Vice-Presidents had also been submitted. The practice of outgoing Presidents returning to their home cities was abandoned for “security” reasons (the pet alibi): soon the retired community could come to occupy a chunk of Lutyens’ luxury enclave.
What is rather clear is that the political class remains unaffected by the widespread condemnation of the lal batti culture, and the malaise has also spread to officials of all description. The unfavourable political climate has seen the bid to raise the pay and allowances of MPs put “on hold”, but there is no doubt it will be processed subsequently. And there are a host of other goodies that elude public notice, loans for cars for example, retirement benefits too. Is it not a matter of shame that a couple of ministers in the previous government have yet to move to less-fancy bungalows, and that even a year after their being elected not all MPs have been provided official accommodation – a few actually preferred living in hotels (at taxpayer&’s cost) for as long as they could “hold out”.
Back to Rashtrapati Bhawan where Mr Pranab Mukherjee has initiated a major restoration effort – reviving two clock towers being a recent example. Re-establishing the dignity and prestige of the office is another unstated task – the “chair” he inherited was blemished, if not tainted.