A conversation with India's first woman head of state towards the end of her term

“My image of a President before I came here,” President K.R. Narayanan said in a rare televised interview with N. Ram in 1998, “was that of a rubber-stamp President, to be frank.” “But having come here,” he went on, “I find that the image is not quite correct. My image of a President is of a working President, not an executive President, but a working President, and working within the four corners of the Constitution.”

“I have to agree with my esteemed predecessor,” says President Pratibha Patil, whose five-year term will end on July 25.

“Five years ago, when I was elected, I had the feeling that the President doesn't have much to do. I've realised, though, that this is not a rubber-stamp position.”

Earlier this week, in a conversation with The Hindu's former Editor-in-Chief N. Ram and me, President Patil offered some rare insight into her vision of India's highest constitutional office, and how she has used it to advance causes of profound concern to her—critically, the rights of women and alleviating the crisis in the country's agrarian economy.

President Patil's term in office has been remarkably free of the kinds of friction that erupted during the tenures of some past Presidents—controversies that, on occasion, led Rashtrapati Bhavan towards collision with the political executive.

In the United Kingdom, the social scientist and essayist Walter Bagehot famously wrote in the nineteenth century that the monarch “has the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, and the right to warn”. In the quietest possible way, President Patil has sought to exercise all three of these rights, while avoiding public controversy of any kind. Parliament, she points out, consists of both its Houses and the President—though the President has no executive authority.

How then, over the last five years, has a textbook President influenced the course of the nation?

On women's rights

Long before she entered Rashtrapati Bhavan, the rights of women had been an important political concern for President Patil. In a 2009 conversation with N. Ram, she flagged child marriage, addiction, and social suppression, all of which contribute to their low social status, as her key concerns.

In our conversation, it is clear the issues she dealt with as an activist continue to be of great importance to her. “Women are 50 per cent of our population,” she says, “and there is simply no way our nation can progress if its population is left behind.”

In 2008, the President summoned the first of the two Governors' conferences that are normally held during her five year term in office. The conference led to the setting up of a new committee of Governors which consulted State governments, legislators and non-governmental organisations before calling for a new high-level initiative to push forward reform.

Their report—a report which the President feels represents decades of on-ground experience of the interstices between government and societies sometimes hesitant to embrace change—was discussed with the Prime Minister. “I impressed on him that this was of the greatest importance,” the President recalls, “and I have to say he was extremely supportive.”

The gains, the President says, have been slow—but are nonetheless evident. Last February, former Supreme Court judge Ruma Pal was appointed to chair a high-level committee to study the status of women. There is now a National Mission for Empowerment of Women that coordinates and monitors system wide implementation of women related programmes.

President Patil is particularly optimistic about the Rashtriya Mahila Kosh, which will provide finance to women-owned enterprises nationwide.

“I'm very worried,” President Patil says, “by the latest census figures, which show an alarming drop in the gender ratio. This is a matter of real concern.” In meeting after meeting, the President has been speaking out in public on the issue—in one case, taking the unusual step of addressing a rally of thousands in Punjab.

“Things move slowly,” President Patil concludes, “but I think you can see they are moving in the right direction. People are realising what the issues are, and coming to understand the need for us to act. You will see the results—perhaps not as fast as we would all like, but surely.”

On the agrarian crisis

President Patil has also quietly used her office to focus attention on the crisis in India's countryside—a crisis that has claimed thousands of lives in Maharashtra, a State that she has decades-old ties of kinship and social engagement with. In her time in office, she has often spoken publicly on the need for change in India's agrarian policies; on one occasion, she addressed a farmers' rally at Nagpur. Key thinkers on agrarian issues, among them the eminent agricultural scientist and food policy expert, M.S. Swaminathan, have been regularly consulted by the President.

For millions of farmers, the President notes, “every monsoon is a gamble.” In her view, there is an urgent need for a second green revolution, focusing on rainfed regions. It seems apparent that the President does not believe government-driven policy reform alone, though, will be adequate to bring about this change. She underlines the need to “think out of the box” to ensure that technology and knowledge can be used to revolutionise the agrarian economy, particularly in rainfed areas.

President Patil has worked to build a coalition involving the Planning Commission, chambers of commerce, public sector undertakings, and experts to see what measures might be taken. She believes that the foundations for this economy can only be laid by a partnership between industry and agriculture.

“Everything else in India can wait,” she says, “but agriculture cannot. Agriculture holds the key to creating foundations for our future growth and prosperity.”

On India's future

In the President's view, one key reason for this happily controversy-free tenure has been the excellent relationship she has enjoyed with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The Prime Minister and President have, she recalls, met on average once every month over the last five years. The President has also been fortunate in not facing the kinds of divided electoral verdicts that led some of her predecessors into controversy, though in 2009 constitutional experts were consulted well in advance in case the 15th Lok Sabha election produced a hung Parliament. The President also appears to have a clear sense of the mood in India's cities and villages: more than 150,000 visitors have been to Rashtrapati Bhavan during her tenure, and she has met with thousands more during tours through the country.

In spite of the growing frustration with corruption in India's national life, which has engendered growing bitterness directed at organised politics and frustration with the country's institutions, President Patil says she remains an optimist.

“The Constitution,” she reflects, “has been a compass that has guided this nation of 1.2 billion people, the world's largest democracy, through very difficult times. Yes, some situations have developed that are challenges, but these are temporary. The Constitution's core values, like secularism, have helped us negotiate the pulls and strains that are imposed by our great diversity.”