Remember those utterly boring school outings where you were dragged into a museum and forced to stare at crumbling artefacts in harsh fluorescent lighting and write reports about them?
It could have been worse.
You could have been staring, not at bits of 12th century temples and Gupta period coins, but at the Pratibha Patil gift cabinet.
As our twelfth president heads off to retirement, we learn that we are now going to be blessed with a Patil museum in Amravati, her old constituency.
Poor Amravati. Other constituencies get roads, bridges and factories. Amravati, whose MLA is Patil’s son Rajendra Singh Shekhawat, is going to be saddled with a white elephant because of its presidential connection. The museum is being built by the Sports Complex Authority and though it’s Patil’s brainchild, it will be run by the Amravati collector.
What, one wonders, does Pratibha Patil want to preserve for posterity? After all this is the woman about whom Baroness Flather, the Conservative life peer in the UK said, “For a woman of her standing, she hasn’t really done much. She hasn’t achieved or brought any glory to the country.” At least the proposed Rajesh Khanna museum at Aashirwad will have memorabilia from the actor’s film career that his diehard fans might like to see.
The Pratibha Patil museum will house some 150-155 objects that the former president received as gifts. Perhaps that is not entirely inappropriate since the former president mainly made news for her expensive trips around the world where she no doubt collected many of these soon-to-be-displayed gifts.
It is unclear whether this museum will put Amravati, already known for its Ambadevi temple, even more firmly on the tourist map. But since the museum will be run by the Patil family’s Vidya Bharati Shikshan Prasarak Mandal which runs a chain of schools in Maharashtra one can foresee school outings from hell in the near future as gaggles of bored schoolchildren stare glassy-eyed at her collection of “sculptures, a few wooden artifacts and a few shawls among other things.”
A president’s gifts belong to the official tosha khana. So these objects will actually have to be on loan from the president’s estate. Pranab –babu could technically demand them back if he or his wife suddenly gets chilly at Raisina Hill ( elderly Bengalis do tend to get a little chilly as soon as you say the word “hill”) and wants one of those shawls his predecessor received. But that’s unlikely. So Amravati will be blessed with the largesse of Pratibha Patil and its collector will have another responsibility on his plate.
But the larger question is what was Pratibha Patil thinking? This is the woman who had to fend off a huge PR debacle because of her entourage-laden foreign trips which she has said were “very successful” in promoting India’s image abroad. Apparently it did not work that successfully with Baroness Flather but no matter. The fact of the matter is Pratibha Patil spent over Rs 200 crore on her tours which have covered over 22 countries. Abdul Kalam made 7 trips to 17 countries during his tenure. RTI records showed that in the space of one year (2009-2010) she took along anywhere between 3 and 11 family members to Poland, Russia, Tajikstan, UK, Cyprus and China. She ended her busy travel schedule with a trip to South Africa and Seychelles a few months ago where she was accompanied by her grandchildren.
Patil exits Rashtrapati Bhavan with some 2,500 gifts in her gift bag, 150 of which are destined for the museum. That’s a small number. But after all the desperate attempts by her office to defuse the embarrassing media storm around her travels, did they really need an entire museum to remind the public every day about the globetrotting president and her excesses?
Pratibha Patil could have walked away quietly into the sunset. The Indian president is ceremonial and there is no compulsion to establish a presidential library the way retiring American presidents do. But no, Pratibha Patil, with her amazing knack for mistiming, has created another opportunity for the media to take a pot shots at her.
Our former president is truly a gift that keeps on giving.