The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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On a path politicians forgot
- First President’s bank account reveals his modest living

Patna, June 28: If Pratibha Patil makes it to Raisina Hill, she’ll be earning more on her first day than what India’s first President saved in the 79 years of his life, 12 of them at Rashtrapati Bhavan.

A savings account in a Patna bank, opened by Rajendra Prasad, shows a balance of Rs 1,432, which includes the interest accumulated in the 44 years since his death on February 28, 1963.

At a monthly salary of Rs 50,000, India’s First Citizen now earns Rs 1,667 daily — and there’s a proposal to double that pay, though the Union cabinet has deferred a decision. Prasad, a Gandhian, would only accept a token Re 1 a month.

“Rajendrababu opened the account with our bank in 1962 when he returned to Patna after his retirement. There’s Rs 1,432 left in the account. We haven’t closed it out of respect for the great man,” said the senior manager of Punjab National Bank’s Exhibition Road branch, Santosh Kumar Singh.

“None from his family (who have left Bihar) has so far come to claim the money,” said chief manager P.K. Sikdar.

To the secretary of the Gandhi Sangrahalaya here, Razi Ahmed, Prasad’s “paltry” savings are a tribute to his “austerity and honesty” in private and public life. “It seems our current politicians have completely forgotten the ideals Rajendrababu stood for.”

The sparse belongings Prasad left behind are a far cry from the diamonds, houses and total assets of Rs 52 crore that the Uttar Pradesh chief minister declared to the Election Commission a few days ago.

The unpretentious, single-storey Rajendra Smriti Sangrahalaya, set among mango groves on Patna’s northern fringes, looks hardly the sort of place where a President would spend his last days.

Hemchandra Singh, the caretaker, dispels all doubts. “This is the house where Rajenbabu lived,” he declares, throwing the creaky gates open.

From the verandah, a door opens into the bedroom, where chunks of plaster have fallen off the ceiling. There are two wooden beds, with a wide-bladed Usha fan hanging over one. “Babu slept on one of the beds and used the other for his daily prayers. He worshipped Lord Krishna,” Hemchandra says. A bookstand at the corner displays the Geeta and Bhajnavali (collection of hymns) from which he would read and sing. On the floor lie a pair of black pump shoes made of ordinary leather, the sort elderly villagers still wear. The dark grey “prince” coat of coarse khadi that Prasad wore to his swearing-in lies neatly folded inside a rickety wooden cupboard in the sitting room, which adjoins the bedroom.

The cupboard also showcases an old umbrella and a couple of cane sticks with crescent-shaped handles.

The simplicity extended to all aspects of Prasad’s life, says Hemchandra, who was 13 when the ex-President came to live in the house. “My father Misrilal Singh was the caretaker. I watched him make roti and boil vegetables for Babu.”

The only valuables are in the sitting room: the presents the President had received in office. There are bamboo cups and plates gifted by China’s Zhou Enlai, a pen stand from the late Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev, and sabres from the then Nepal king. Some are moth-eaten, some coated by dirt.

The most precious article — to Prasad at least — would have been the two broken charkhas, Hemchandra suggests.

He is embarrassed at the condition of the memorial. “Floodwaters had submerged half of the Sangrahalaya in 1975. All these shelves remained under water for days.”

“The floods have eroded Babu’s memory at a time muscle and money rule politics,” rues Razi.

Not for the bank, though. The chief manager proudly holds up the specimen signature Prasad had provided while opening the account.

“We displayed the account on our foundation day,” he says, mentioning that Jaya Prakash Narayan, too, had an account with the bank.

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