Rough ride

Print edition : July 13, 2007

Pratibha Patil with the CPI's general secretary A.B. Bardhan (centre) and Rajya Sabha member D. Raja in New Delhi.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY Pratibha Patil with the CPI's general secretary A.B. Bardhan (centre) and Rajya Sabha member D. Raja in New Delhi.

Allegations that have surfaced after Pratibha Patil's nomination make her candidature controversial.

"WHY are you coming up with the names of male politicians only? Why not a lady politician?" D. Raja, leader of the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the newly elected Rajya Sabha member, says it was this question from some leaders of the Left parties during the discussions they had with the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) leadership that prompted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to come up with the name of Pratibha Patil as the presidential candidate. The Left found the name of the Rajasthan Governor acceptable and in less than 48 hours her candidature was announced.

By all indications, the Left had specifically appreciated her recent track record as Governor and the secular values she upheld during the tenure. She took a strong stand in April 2006 when the Rajasthan Assembly passed the Rajasthan Freedom of Religion Bill, 2006, which apparently sought to ban religious conversions, advancing the Sangh Parivar's view on this issue. Pratibha Patil returned the Bill unsigned, stating that certain clauses of it infringed on "the fundamental rights such as freedom of speech and expression, freedom of conscience and freedom to profess, practise and propagate religion".

The Government of Rajasthan sent the Bill back to her in May 2006 noting that similar anti-conversion laws enacted by Congress governments in Madhya Pradesh and Orissa 40 years ago were upheld by the Supreme Court. The government also pointed out that while drafting Article 25 of the Constitution, B.R. Ambedkar had said that it would be best to leave it to the State legislatures to make laws to regulate conversions. Pratibha Patil did not relent and sat on the controversial Bill for over a year and later sent it to President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam on June 20, a day before she demitted the office of Governor to file the nomination for the presidential election.

In a political career spanning 45 years, Pratibha Patil has occupied various positions, such as Deputy Chairperson of the Rajya Sabha between 1986 and 1988. Hailing from Nandgaon in Maharashtra, she was a member of the State Assembly between 1962 and 1985 and was the Leader of the Opposition between 1978 and 1982. Before that, she was a Minister in the Maharashtra government for 11 years. Post-1982, she was again Minister in the State for four years. She held important portfolios, including Public Health, Education, Urban Development and Civil Supplies during these stints. She was strongly tipped to become Chief Minister in 1980, but lost out to A.R. Antulay. She moved to the Rajya Sabha thereafter and was later elected to the Lok Sabha.

An important streak in her career was her loyalty to the Nehru family. In 1977, post- Emergency, she stood resolutely with the then defeated Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, in spite of the fact that her mentor S.B. Chavan and colleague Sharad Pawar had decided to part ways. The overwhelming perception in the Congress is that the Nehru family has always rewarded her for this act of loyalty and both the Governor's post and the presidential nomination are examples of this.

Whatever the fact, it could be safely said that Pratibha Patil's political career has been steady and non-controversial.

But all that changed dramatically soon after she was chosen the presidential candidate. Allegations and exposes started emerging one after the other. It all started with a controversy over remarks she made about the "purdah" system in Rajasthan. Soon accusations about irregularities in the Pratibha Mahila Sahakari Bank (Pratibha Women's Cooperative Bank) she set up in 1982 came up. Subsequently, charges were levelled against her relatives, including her brother G.N. Patil.

The remark on "purdah" was made hardly 48 hours after her nomination. It went as follows: "Women have always been respected in the Indian culture. The `purdah' system was introduced to protect them from the Muslim invaders. However, times have changed. India is now independent and hence the system should also change. Now that women are progressing in every field, we should morally support and encourage them by leaving such practices behind." Historians, Islamic theologians and even the Muslim Personal Law Board were quick to point out the anomaly in the statement.

The historian Varsha Joshi pointed out that the "purdah" system preceded the Mughal invasion. She pointed out that women were not allowed to take part in the coronation ceremonies of Rajput rulers, and that they were mostly confined to homes and that there was evidence of construction of separate "zenana" chambers for women in the Chittaurgarh fort in the 11th century. "To argue that `purdah' started because of the Mughals amounts to taking a very narrow view of history," she said. Zafryab Jilani, member of the Muslim Personal Law Board, said that it was unfortunate that a leader of Pratibha Patil's stature had fallen for the campaign of Hindutva forces.

Another remark that evoked ridicule was her reported claim that she communicated with spirits. This was apparently made at the headquarters of the Brahmakumaris Samaj at Mount Abu. She claimed that the spirit of Baba, (Dada Lekhraj, the founder of the sect) who died in 1969, entered the body of Hridaymohini `Dadiji', the present head of the sect, and that they both had a conversation.

The controversy these comments raised was accompanied by allegations of fraud against the Mahila Sahakari Bank. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) had reportedly cancelled the licence to the bank in view of alleged financial irregularities. Those who obtained loans and waiver of interests from the welfare-oriented bank included Pratibha Patil's relatives, such as her brothers and nephews. A case has been filed against the management at the Aurangabad Bench of the Bombay High Court, and Pratibha Patil, as the founding Chairperson of the bank and later Director, is one of the 34 respondents in the ongoing case. Since her nomination, many of the depositors' families have made bold to state that the bank has mismanaged their funds.

It has also come to light that Sant Muktabai Sahakari Shakhar Karkhana (Saint Muktabai Cooperative Sugar Factory), of which Pratibha Patil is the founder-president, has been declared a defaulter for failing to repay a Rs.17.5-crore bank loan. The loan was taken in 1994. Officials of the bank claim that the loan has not been repaid although a number of reminders have been issued. In a notice sent in June 2007, the bank threatened to attach the factory's property. The factory was reportedly inaugurated by Sonia Gandhi on January 23, 1999.

Another accusation involves Pratibha Patil's brother G.N. Patil. Rajni Patil, a Professor in Jalgaon College and the widow of a murdered Congress politician, G.V. Patil, alleged that G.N. Patil, who was a rival of her husband, was behind the conspiracy to kill her husband. Rajni Patil accuses Pratibha Patil of shielding her brother.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is cashing in on these allegations. The party has printed a couple of booklets to be distributed to the electoral college. Pratibha Patil has not chosen to respond to the allegations.

However, leaders of the UPA, including Manmohan Singh, have dismissed the allegations as baseless and described them as mere mudslinging Ravi Shankar Prasad, spokesperson of the BJP, said that there was no "mudslinging" and that the "party was merely seeking an explanation from her based on information that had come out in the public domain through different sources". Prasad pointed out that the RBI had "condemned" the working of Pratibha Patil's bank in its 2003 report.

"Manmohan Singh was a Governor of the RBI. Should a legitimate question emanating from such a report be called mudslinging?" he asked. According to L.K. Advani, the BJP's Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, the Congress and the UPA should not stand on ceremony but change the candidate because the charges against Pratibha Patil were too serious.

But not all institutions linked to the Patils have a controversial angle. The engineering college in Bambari outside Jalgaon, started by Pratibha Patil, is doing well. It offers courses in information technology and is the only such institute in the area. But amid the spate of allegations it has become difficult for the Congress and the UPA to project her good work.

Talking to the media after the announcement of her candidature, Pratibha Patil asserted that she would not be a "rubber stamp President". The country would certainly hope that she would live up to that promise.

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