With the swearing-in of President Ram Nath Kovind, his wife Savita Kovind, formerly an MTNL employee, is now the First Lady of India. Previously, Suvra Mukherjee, wife of outgoing president Pranab Mukherjee had been the occupant of the this unofficial title, until her demise in August 2015. Very few people had heard about her until her death made news nearly two years ago. India’s first spouses have generally had a very light presence, when they haven’t been missing altogether. When they are there, many of them act as the official hostesses of the Rashtrapati Bhavan, although in some cases this role has gone to the daughters, due to spousal health issues, as in the case of Presidents Pranab Mukherjee and Giani Zail Singh.
Rajvanshi Devi, the wife of India’s first President, Rajendra Prasad, was not a public figure and did not attend public functions along with him. One struggles to find archival photographs of her; there aren’t many. Prasad was succeeded by President S Radhakrishnan, a widower, and the latter was succeeded by President Zakir Hussain, whose wife Shahjahan Begum also barely has a public record.
The first ‘First Lady’ to become a familiar face in functions was Saraswati Bai, wife of fourth President V. V. Giri in 1969. Following her, Begum Abida Ahmed, wife of President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed (1974), was a better known President spouse who organised and presided over the Rashtrapati Bhavan gatherings. More significantly, afterwards she went on to carve out her own political career, and was elected to the Lok Sabha twice, in 1980 and 1984, from Bareilly in UP. The spouses of Presidents R Venkataraman and Shankar Dayal Sharma were seen by their husbands’ side at public functions and during foreign visits. Usha Narayanan, President K R Narayanan’s wife of Burmese origin, had been involved in the social welfare activities for women.
In 2002, President APJ Abdul Kalam became India’s first bachelor president, and hence there was no official hostess. Devisingh Shekhawat, husband of President Pratibha Patil became the only First Gentleman. A member of Congress Party like Patil, Shekhawat was also one of the better known President spouses, although eventually that was for less than appealing reasons which embroiled Patil and family.
Spouses of both presidents and prime ministers in India, when the latter are not unmarried or widowed, have generally kept a very low profile and are not seen beyond important public functions at home and abroad. Amongst the masses, only a few are aware of them unless they have been personalities in their own right, such as Abida Ahmed and Sonia Gandhi (and even in their case, it was majorly due to their entry into politics later). This remains in stark contrast to the American tradition of the First Lady’s office, where the role, despite being a non-political one, has a high visibility and even glamour attached to it.