Umbrellas, shoes, our democracy—and theirs


Fifty-eight years and six days after India became a Republic, her first-ever woman President Pratibha Patil visited Hampi, a UNESCO world heritage site that showcases the vicissitudes of the Vijayanagar empire. Accompanied by her husband, Devisingh Shekawat, Patil visited five monuments during a three-hour trip, listened to the musical notes emanating from the stone pillars of the Vijaya Vittala Temple, and wrote in the visitors’ book:

“Excellent man-made creation, which is still lively. It tells about the history, architectural beauty, music, belief, faith and continuity of life, where stones speak, spread music and give inspiration to future generations.”

That’s a mouthful to scribble in a few minutes, thank you, but the real object of note during the Rashtrapati’s visit was the Rashtrapati and the Rashtrapati’s pati. And a couple of scenes should have caught any discerning eye, besides of course the fact that the site was closed to visitors for almost three days, and 30 monkeys were nabbed to enable the first lady and gent get a hassle-free, unhindered view.

Scene 1 (above, left): Fawning officials carrying the umbrella for the lady. Yes, the President is the supreme commander. Yes, that’s one of the perks of being the President. But is an umbrella so heavy for a 74-year-old lady to carry it herself, when the commander-in-chief of the most powerful country in the solar system can carry it himself? In a democracy, and a Republic at that, can a President be a master with a retinue of servants at her disposal?

Scene 2: Television pictures of attendants helping the Rashtrapati and the Rashtrapati’s pati to put on their footwear after visiting the temples. What could be more demeaning than that? Even if the President has a problem in bending down and putting on her sandals or stilettoes or whatever it is she wears, what specific orthopaedic problem is her husband suffering from that a citizen of this country should help him put on his jhoothe?

These letters to the editor of Deccan Herald shine a lamp on Raisina Hill:

H. N. Ananda, Bangalore: It is shocking to see the picture of attendants helping President Pratibha Patil and her husband to wear their footwear. Do they need help to do this simple job? What sort of democratic spirit is Pratibha conveying through this? Our netas are worse than the royal brigade of yesteryear in shamelessly using the servants for such simple errands. What a contrast to her illustrious predecessors!

R. Krishnan, Bangalore: I would never have imagined that such indignity would be heaped on citizens of independent India where they have to “assist” fellow citizens to wear their footwear. Like the practice of including the maximum number of security guards along with them, the practice of having their footwear assistants accompany them may become another status symbol among our leaders!

Maybe, she’s spent too much time in Rajasthan where the feudal master-servant relationship is deeply ingrained to let go of a bad habit. Maybe, she has the disadvantage of always being compared with A.P.J. Abdul Kalam who used to bounce all over the place. But if Pratibha Patil wants to be seen as a Rashtrapati of the people, rather than as a stooge of 10, Janpath, a good first step would be to put on sandals herself. And politely telling her pati to do likewise.

Photographs: Karnataka Photo News