Smt. Pratibah Devisingh Patil

You could tell she had arrived by the wacka-wacka-wacka. I’d never before seen or heard a helicopter in the skies over Pondicherry. Her Excellency, Shrimati Pratibha Devisingh Patil, President of India, was in town for the better part of two days.

One could not have helped but learn of her visit well in advance. The Government of Pondicherry, which hasn’t had sufficient money in its coffers to pay the city’s garbage collectors for the last five months, was on a mad shopping-spree, knocking itself out to beautify every inch of streetscape on which the presidential eye might glance during her minutely choreographed visit.

It is hard to identify the most outrageous aspect of this scenario.

Is it the congenitally misplaced priorities of Pondicherry’s Chief Secretariat and Public Works Department? Probably not. We are almost inured to the corruption, small-mindedness, and incompetence of the local government.

Is it the fact that such vast resources were spent to welcome a woman who, in most other societies that give lip-service to The Rule of Law, would be occupying a jail cell rather than the Rashtrapati Bhavan? Not really. By the standards of Indian politicians, she falls within the norms of corruption. After all, the murder of her brother’s rival was never fully pinned on her; and most of her miscreant behavior involves stealing, bribe-taking, and violating the public trust. In India, this is practically the formal job description of a politician.

Likewise, that she is a woman of scant intellect (“In today’s knowledge-based society, having a sound knowledge base… is important,” she intoned in a recent speech), little historical understanding or communal sensitivity (“The purdah system was put in place to protect [Hindu women] from the Muslim invaders.”), and pervasive irrationality (she receives mediumistic messages from a deceased cult leader) does not bear much on the situation. The fact that she is not qualified to be President of India is about as relevant as the fact that George W. Bush was not qualified to be President of the United States. He is; and so is she. It is interesting, however, that when staff-members of a certain institution Ms. Patil will be visiting tomorrow (which will remain nameless) were told that they must sign up for passes to meet her, only four of the fifty-or-so eligible put their name on the list. Her predecessor, A.P.J. Abul Kalam, would have garnered one-hundred percent turnout. No one could care less about this woman. The usual crowds of flag-waving well-wishers lining the streets were conspicuously absent. They couldn’t even find people to bus in for the occasion.

Maybe the saddest part of this whole episode is that it is typical of the way Delhi politicians are treated as they move about the country. The India they see is not the India in which Indians live. It is a spiffed-up, sanitized facsimile, which will tarnish and fall into disrepair almost instantaneously when the political visit is over. Perhaps this is why Indian politicians do so little for the people they purport to serve. They probably think the whole country is without want or worry.

Warm Welcome to the President of India

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