by Abhay Vaidya
At a time when issues relating to land grab by politicians and politically-connected builders have been hitting the headlines day in and day out, the 12th president of India, Patibha Devisingh Patil, and her advisors should have picked up the first signs of trouble over her post-retirement home in Pune.
Patil is technically right when she says that she cannot be accused of “land grab” in Pune. Her defence is that the 2.61 lakh sq ft land being developed for her bungalow premises under the Khadki cantonment Board in Pune would continue to remain with the defence ministry. The land ownership had not changed hands and so, she has not “grabbed” any land.
Where Patil erred was in being insensitive to the issues raised by ex-servicemen in Pune such as retired colonel Suresh Patil and his NGO, Justice for Jawans. An infuriated Patil asked why so much land was being allotted to president Patil and a 4,500 sq ft bungalow constructed afresh when there was an acute paucity of accommodation for soldiers posted in Pune.
They pointed out that the land for Patil’s bungalow was meant for military use. Patil and his fellow crusader and RTI activist Anup Awasthi also used the Right to Information Act, 2005 to get the facts on the president’s post-retirement entitlements for housing. The reply they got from the president’s office further intensified their agitation: Under the rules, a retired president was entitled to 2,000 sq ft of “living area” to be taken on lease in case suitable government residence was not available. In the case of a government residence being allotted to the ex-president, the size of the bungalow could go up to 5,498 sq.ft – the highest entitlement for a union minister.
Patil’s mistake was to get 2.61 lakh sq ft land allotted to her and authorise the construction of a new, 4,500 sq ft bungalow on it.
Was the president taking her lavish lifestyle at Rashtrapati Bhavan a bit too far? Given the honour, prestige and dignity associated with the president’s office, her senior staff should also have done some background checks and intelligence gathering on the ramifications of the controversy brewing in Pune. At the end of it, it is the president who has cut a sorry face, despite her protestations.
Although this president is from Maharashtra — the northern Jalgaon district to be precise — she has no emotional connect with the people of Pune. Just as her foreign trips sparked a controversy because of the Rs 200 crore expenditure and the large family entourage, domestically, her many trips to Pune also became a talking point. Her trips to Pune were far more frequent than those of her predecessor, president APJ Abdul Kalam, who had a hectic tour schedule. In Patil’s case, however, questions were asked whether her trips and extended halts in Pune had anything to do with family visits as her daughter’s family resides in Pune.
Given this background, her decision to settle in Pune after retirement did not come as a surprise. The family connection made headlines in 2010 when the Maharashtra government allotted commercially attractive plots of land to trusts headed by her Pune-based daughter Jyoti Rathore and Maharashtra rural development minister Jayant Patil.
The two plots with high commercial potential were allotted in village Jambhe in Mulshi taluka, within five km off the Mumbai-Pune expressway and the IT park at Hinjewadi. Rathore’s Maharashtra Mahila Udyam Trust had to pay just Rs 6.72 lakh to the government for the 7.93 hectare plot with an estimated market value of Rs 19 crore. The plan included 27,300 sq metre of land for a residential school, 20,000 sq metres for a college and 32,000 sq metres for a playground. Rathore had then told the media that the trust paid the money as per government procedure and ready-reckoner norms, and did not get the land at a “throwaway price”.
In February, president Patil’s son and Congress MLA Raosaheb Shekhawat was interrogated by the Amravati police in connection with the seizure of Rs 1 crore in hard currency from a car coming from Nagpur. The money was hidden in the luggage compartment of the car and the Maharashtra Congress and Shekhawat explained it as “party funds” meant for distribution to poor Congress candidates ahead of the civic polls on 16 February. Many found this explanation laughable and wondered whether the cash was meant to buy votes.
A career politician from Jalgaon known for her loyalty to the Nehru-Gandhi family, Patil gave the Congress led by Sonia Gandhi the historic opportunity of nominating India’s first woman president. This decision to give preference to loyalty and gender over merit while selecting the presidential nominee, proved disastrous as Patil was already enveloped by many controversies.
She had already been accused of mismanagement at the Sant Muktabai Cooperative Sugar Factory controlled by her and the alleged involvement of her brother GN Patil in the VG Patil murder case in Jalgaon in 2004. These were among the controversies that resurfaced the moment Patil was nominated by the UPA for presidentship in 2007.
Among all the 12 presidents of India, it is President Patil’s term that began and is now ending on a low note. The previous low point that the office of the president witnessed was when the seventh president of India, Giani Zail Singh, clashed with then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. He had also famously said that he was willing to become a sweeper but was asked by his leader (Indira Gandhi) to become the president of India.
It is now Patil, more than Singh, who will be remembered for setting new standards in lowering the dignity of the president’s office.