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Wednesday, Oct 05, 2022

President Ram Nath Kovind looks back at his five-year stay at the Rashtrapati Bhavan

What made the days memorable, the symbolic significance of the Office of the President and the learnings from Mahatma Gandhi and BR Ambedkar

President Ram Nath Kovind, Ram Nath Kovind at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, Rashtrapati Bhavan news, President Ram Nath Kovind journey, eye 2022, sunday eye, indian express newsPresident Ram Nath Kovind feeding ducks at the Mughal Gardens of the Rashtrapati Bhavan. (Photo: Rashtrapati Bhavan Archives)

Time is truly a mystery for us. It keeps moving on its own no matter what we do or wish. It seems as if it was only a little while ago that I was elected to this office. The pandemic, too, has certainly added to the compression of time. When I look back, myriad feelings swirl around me. It is but human to be nostalgic of the time gone by. It is equally human to wistfully wonder what more could have been accomplished.

It was nearly five years ago that I entered the portals of this most majestic monument. For someone who grew up in a village in Uttar Pradesh in the 1940s, the opulence of the Rashtrapati Bhavan could have been oppressively imposing. But I knew that it is not meant to be merely the official residence of an individual — the residential quarters of the President are actually a small corner of the estate. It is meant to be the seat of power of the Republic, articulating its vision of itself in stones. In its early years, it certainly had a different function, which underwent a transformation on August 15, 1947, like so much else in the country.

President Ram Nath Kovind, Ram Nath Kovind at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, Rashtrapati Bhavan news, President Ram Nath Kovind journey, eye 2022, sunday eye, indian express news Odisha teacher Nanda Prusty receives the Padma Shri award from President Ram Nath Kovind during the Civil Investiture Ceremony at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, November 9, 2021. (Photo: Rashtrapati Bhavan Archives)

It was the first Indian governor-general C Rajagopalachari who spelled out the transformation when he said he would not occupy more than a room of this building that has 340 rooms. After him, the first President Rajendra Prasad consolidated the link between this building and the Gandhian ethos. Every successor of his has honoured that moral framework. Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy recalls in his memoirs that on being elected President, he had expressed his desire to live not in the Rashtrapati Bhavan but someplace more appropriate to a Gandhian lifestyle. He, however, was convinced in no time that any alternative would turn out to be a costlier proposition. He must have soon found the truth of the proverb, “Maan changa to kathauti mein Ganga“; it is the attitude that matters. He continued to lead his spartan life here, reminiscent of S Radhakrishnan.

At the same time, however, the famed opulence of the Rashtrapati Bhavan cannot be ignored or brushed aside. Indeed, it is to be celebrated as reflective of a great nation, with unparalleled civilisational riches. Though Edwin Lutyens wanted to make an architectural statement on the might of the British Empire, he could not resist incorporating Indian themes and motifs in it. The architecture of the building continues to make that statement on the might — but of an independent India. It has never failed to inspire awe in dignitaries visiting from abroad, who rightly see it as a symbol of a proud nation.

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President Ram Nath Kovind, Ram Nath Kovind at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, Rashtrapati Bhavan news, President Ram Nath Kovind journey, eye 2022, sunday eye, indian express news President Ram Nath Kovind with the First Lady Savita Kovind at the inauguration of the annual Udyanotsav of the Mughal Gardens at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, February 4, 2019. (Photo: Rashtrapati Bhavan Archives)

That term “symbol” reminds me of what BR Ambedkar had said about the office of the President. During the Constituent Assembly debates, he had remarked that the president “is the symbol of the nation”. Ever since I settled down in this residence in the final days of July 2017, I have often meditated upon Babasaheb’s words. Whenever I have found myself perplexed, I have turned to his description of my role — that the President “represents the nation”.

That, indeed, made everything crystal clear to me. What else can a nation be but its people? And if representing them is the responsibility assigned to this office, I only had to think of my village. I first realised the truth of it when I was addressing a gathering after winning the presidential elections. It was raining outside, and, all of a sudden, I had a rare moment of truth. There was a jolt of reckoning as the monsoons of my childhood resurfaced in my memory. Our home used to be in poor condition, the roof was always leaking and we children would take shelter in a corner and wait for the downpour to subside. The words came impromptu and I told the gathering: “Who knows how many Ram Nath Kovinds are getting wet in the rain right now…” I wanted to tell them that Ram Nath Kovind of Paraunkh village is going to the Rashtrapati Bhavan as their representative.

I believe Ambedkar must have had similar sentiments in mind when he envisioned the President as representing the nation. Contemplating further on his words whenever my mind drifted in that direction — while taking a morning walk amid the pristine environs of the Rashtrapati Bhavan, while looking out in the west over the expanse of the Mughal Gardens watching the sun set or while engrossed in work in the study — I have frequently thought that Babasaheb’s prescription is not at all different from Mahatma Gandhi’s famed talisman; it is only rephrased for the office of the president. Gandhiji’s advice was: “Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him.”

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President Ram Nath Kovind, Ram Nath Kovind at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, Rashtrapati Bhavan news, President Ram Nath Kovind journey, eye 2022, sunday eye, indian express news President Ram Nath Kovind meeting participants from Jammu & Kashmir as part of the “Watan Ko Jano” programme, an initiative of the Ministry of Home Affairs, at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, on February 20, 2018. (Photo: Rashtrapati Bhavan Archives)

I find a deeper resonance in the noble and uplifting thoughts of Gandhiji and Ambedkar. Indeed, it is true of all the great leaders of our freedom struggle who shared a moral universe. Their words and expressions may differ, but their ideals and principles were forged in the same crucible. At a personal level, for me, discovering the layers of such perennial truths has been one of the perks and privileges of this august office.

The other perks and privileges include meeting people, in India and abroad, who express unusually strong hopes for this nation. Their indefatigable spirit of working for a better tomorrow, individually or collectively, has always amazed me. I have met some extraordinary minds whom I might not have met if I were not the President. Consider Nanda Kishore Prusty, for example. Being blessed by “Nanda Mastre”, who was about a hundred years old when I conferred the Padma Shri award on him in November 2021, would count among the most memorable moments of my term. His remarkable achievement was that he had single-handedly kept alive a traditional mode of primary education in Odisha.

President Ram Nath Kovind, Ram Nath Kovind at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, Rashtrapati Bhavan news, President Ram Nath Kovind journey, eye 2022, sunday eye, indian express news President Ram Nath Kovind in the presidential buggy at the forecourt of the Rashtrapati Bhavan after taking office on July 25, 2017. (Photo: Rashtrapati Bhavan Archives)

During my visits across the country, interacting with people from all walks of life, I have felt reassured by their unstinting faith in democracy and patriotic fervour. Needless to say, this is all the more so in case of interaction with brave soldiers from the rank and file of the armed forces. Abroad, it is not only members of the diaspora, but also the local populace who speak of India, the land of the Mahatma, as a beacon of world peace, whose spiritual values should serve as a lighthouse amid today’s turbulent times.

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I often wonder what it is about this land that has given rise to our mission, unique in history, of a 1.3 billion-plus people binding their destinies with one another willingly, hopefully and even joyfully. Becoming its first citizen and its symbol has been my privilege, my honour. As this nation completes 75 years of independence, and enters the “amrit kaal” — the auspicious prelude to the centenary of freedom — I wish it scales greater and greater heights.

(This is the concluding article in the series)

First published on: 10-07-2022 at 06:00:20 am
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