When the row over former president Pratibha Patil’s foreign tours and the size of the delegations accompanying her was raging, there was a sense that “big delegations” were unusual. But papers for 1959 in The Selected Works of Jawaharal Nehru, Volume 50, place this debate in context.
On July 1, 1959, Nehru wrote to president Rajendra Prasad on matters very similar to those that would one day centre around Patil. In the letter, Nehru alerts Prasad to problems faced by countries he was visiting with unduly “large parties.” He writes on the president’s visit to Ceylon (Sri Lanka), which was between June 16 and 22 that year, “Reports have reached us from Ceylon, among them some comments by Ceylon ministers and senior officials, to the effect that the large party that accompanied you to Ceylon put them at great strain. There were I believe 50 persons in the party.” Nehru goes on to share information about boarding and lodging the Ceylon government faced, especially in Anuradhapura and Kandy, and “the Ceylon Railway Manager stated that he had to organise the longest special train in his experience to accommodate our President’s party and this was rather a strain.”
Nehru continues with his characteristic detail to speak of how the business of large parties accompanying an Indian head of state is “the habit of following the Viceregal conventions in this matter. These are hardly applicable in India today and much less outside India”.
Prasad writes back on July 3, asserting that the size of all accompanying parties was “settled after consultation” with the MEA, adding that in fact it was the Ceylon government that had of its own invited the press representatives and the air crew.
Other than Ceylon, Nehru goes on to broadside Prasad about a domestic visit too, to Nainital. Nehru writes that while the governor there was greatly pleased with his visit, “but, rather hesitantly, he said that the strain on his establishment was very great and it was difficult to make arrangements for a party of about 60 persons who had accompanied you to Nainital. The Raj Bhawan there was big, but too small for your party and many other arrangements had to be made, both for accommodation and transport.”
Prasad writes back how the visit between May 26 and June 4 “was mainly due to the Governor’s own invitation to my family and to my Officers’ families and his staff having requested us to help them with cars from Delhi.”
Nehru apologises for writing this, but says he felt compelled to. “As I have had many reports of criticisms, I thought that I should bring this matter to your notice.” Prasad, for his part, agrees to “look into the matter” and agreed that “the entourage which accompanied me on my tours should not be unduly or unnecessarily large.”
The governor of UP at the time was V V Giri, who went on to be president in very eventful circumstances, when a call for support by Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi eventually precipitated a split in the Congress. Giri had his own share of controversies around presidential sojourns in his term.