Op-Ed: Controversies President Kovind Could Have Done Without

Rarely has a Presidential visit left behind such an unsavoury trail of controversies in its wake. On his maiden, two-day visit to Odisha that ended on Sunday, President Ramnath Kovind could have certainly done without these controversies, at least some of them of his own office’s making.

The biggest of these controversies was over his address at the showpiece event at the Jawaharlal Nehru Indoor Stadium shortly after dedicating Anand Bhavan to the nation on Saturday. Most neutral observers thought the President could have done without the references to ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ and ‘Ujjawala’ Yojana, which had unmistakable political overtones, on a somber occasion like the inauguration of a museum dedicated to legendary leader and former Chief Minister Biju Patnaik. Such references are best reserved for the Presidential address at the start of the budget session of Parliament rather than an occasion like this.

During the course of the same speech, the President likened Anand Bhavan to its more illustrious counterpart in Allahabad (Nehru’s ancestral home) and said it was a centre of the freedom struggle, a claim that has precious little historical evidence to back it. The question is: whose hare-brained idea was it to include this piece of spurious history into the Presidential speech? While there is little hope of Rashtrpati Bhavan putting the record straight on this matter, the needle of suspicion certainly points to the state government, which had invited the President to dedicate the refurbished Anand Bhavan to the nation. The President would do well not to depend too heavily on his speech writers and inputs from state governments and do some research of his own while finalizing his speeches in future.

There were other controversies too that marred his visit to the Millennium City. Reports suggesting that Rashtrapati Bhavan had sent a communiqué to the state government ahead of his visit that three BJP leaders from the city – Samir Dey, Nayan Mohanty and Pitambar Acharya – would receive him at Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Museum, if true, certainly left a bad taste in the mouth. Nothing prevented the President from meeting these BJP leaders or, for that matter, any other leaders of the BJP or any other political party privately. [And the President did meet leaders of various parties, including BJP and Samajwadi Party, during his stay at Raj Bhavan.] But to insist on being received by leaders of a political party during an official engagement, was something that was best avoided. There are also unconfirmed reports that Rashtrapati Bhavan had sent at the 11th hour a list of 44 BJP leaders to be accommodated at the function at the Jawaharlal Nehru Indoor Stadium, a request the state government is believed to have turned down politely. If such a request was indeed made, it did nothing to enhance the apolitical nature of Rashtrapati Bhavan.

While most of those who have occupied Rashtrapati Bhavan in the past have been career politicians, they have, with the exception of very few, have risen above partisan politics and upheld the majesty of the exalted office they have held. The last President Pranab Mukherjee was a shining example of this glorious tradition of Indian democracy. A politician who spent a lifetime as a Congressman, Pranabda, as he is fondly called, seamlessly slipped into an apolitical role after becoming President and had absolutely no problems working with a government headed by a party he opposed all his life as a politician for the better part of his five-year term. President Kovind would do well to take a leaf out of his predecessor’s book and follow it for the rest of his term.

The President’s engagements in the holy town of Puri were not devoid of their share of controversy either. Experts on Jagannath Cult say the President’s reference to the pilgrim town of Puri as the ‘Kashi of the East’ during his address at the centenary celebrations of Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan on Sunday, though well meaning, was rather condescending and could have been best avoided. “It gave an impression that Kashi is somehow superior or more important than Puri,” said one of them.  There was also the relatively minor matter of priests grumbling over the President’s failure to give them ‘dakshina’, but that can be dismissed as the usual rant of the priestly class. In any case, the President is reported to have made a contribution to the temple ‘hundi’ though it is not known how much he gave.

Here is hoping that President Kovind would take note of the sour note his maiden visit to Odisha has left behind and would ensure that his next visit here – as also his visits to other states – would take into consideration local sensitivities and the paramount need to not only act and speak apolitical, but also to be seen doing so.



(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)