The result of Thursday’s presidential election is hardly a mystery. Even chief minister Mamata Banerjee has drunk, what Imam Khomeini of Iran termed, the “poisoned chalice”. What impact, if any, the election has on national destiny is unknown, but it generally has immediate consequences for those who run Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Designed by Edwin Lutyens, with Herbert Baker focusing on the secretariat buildings, which we now call North and South Blocks, the complex on Raisina Hill was to be the showpiece of colonial prestige and power. Lutyens agitated persistently that the slope from Vijay Chowk should be reduced to enable a better sighting of the Bhavan, of which only the dome is now visible from that vantage point.
There was debate too on whether the secretariats should be at the base of the hill, giving the viceroy’s residence sole space on the hill, like the US Congress. Ironically, as the residence of the non-executive head of a republic, today it is preferable that it is ensconced amidst the ministries of external affairs, defence, finance and home, besides the office of the Prime Minister himself.
However, from being the abode and office of the viceroy to that of the President was a huge leap. A veritable palace having 340 rooms, a 15-acre Mughal Garden and a staff trained to cook, maintain and serve, it is a self-contained parallel universe in the heart of the capital. Most staff live on the estate, it has its own medical facilities, golf course (which one President wanted to plough over to grow wheat), swimming pool, tennis and squash courts and even a captive petrol pump.
Any new President, his family and aides get as much dependent on this as they may try to adapt it to their vagaries and needs. The staff itself is a mix of descendants of those who have served earlier and new recruits that each President always leaves behind.
Of course, as the new encountered the old, there has been a modulation of protocol and systems, not always for the better. For instance, one of the finest ceremonies used to be the individual presentation of credentials by incoming ambassadors/high commissioners and then their farewell calls.
President K.R. Narayanan, having been ambassador to the US earlier, borrowed the US President’s practice of clubbing more than one for the sake of convenience. What is fine for the busy US President, who is the head of the executive, need not have been imposed on the Indian institution.
Some traditions, however, persist. The President’s Bodyguards, raised by Warren Hastings in the 18th century, are an elite group of 161 men and 14 JCOs (junior commissioned officers) drawn evenly from Sikhs, Jats and Rajputs. After Indira Gandhi’s assassination, there was an attempt to prune the Sikh portion. Fortunately, the resistance put up by the then commandant, Col Billy Sodhi, stymied it.
These fine horsemen, each over six feet tall, are present at all ceremonial functions. They also ride alongside the President’s car, what used to be a carriage till 1984, for President’s participation in Republic Day functions or his visits to Parliament. They also escort heads of state/government visiting or staying at Rashtrapati Bhavan.
The 12th Indian President has been preceded by an eclectic mix. Age wise, most were in their 70s, three being 77 (R. Venkataraman; K.R. Narayanan; and now Pranab Mukherjee); one 75 (V.V. Giri); two 74 (S. Radhakrishnan; S.D. Sharma); and four between them and 70.
Mukherjee would be only the third to be elevated from the cabinet, the other two having had controversial tenures, F.A. Ahmad for signing the Emergency ordinance and Giani Zail Singh for the stand-off with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
The Rashtrapati Bhavan when approached from the Vijay Chowk presents its eastern face. Below the dome is the Darbar Hall, surrounding which are the grand rooms for ceremonial and official functions. Attached to them are the four wings, two each on the North and the South, approachable from two courtyards.
While the viceroys resided in the southwestern wing, post-1947 it has been used only for the stay of heads of state/government. Perhaps the first occupant, Rajendra Prasad, and the then leaders felt that the more ostentatious wing was best left to guests. What were earlier the guestrooms in the southeastern wing are the apartment quarters of India’s First Citizen. Thus unknown to the people of India, the President actually lives on two floors of one wing and not the whole building.
From the 1990s, visiting dignitaries from abroad have slowly started preferring to stay in luxury hotels for two reasons. One, Rashtrapati Bhavan can only accommodate 10-odd guests, thus necessitating the splitting of delegations. Second, the quality of food and service at hotels has become superior.
This is a pity as Rashtrapati Bhavan had a great culinary tradition, with a line of Assamese Barua chefs. During the tenure of President Zail Singh, the kitchen was upgraded and the comptroller of household was taken from the ITDC. I have never had as good a baked Alaska dessert as the cooks at Rashtrapati Bhavan could produce.
The personal food habits of the First Family must not permeate the traditional menus perfected over decades. This has unfortunately happened, a divide not having been maintained between the President’s own household and the kitchen of Rashtrapati Bhavan.
The President has two other residences: one being Rashtrapati Nilayam in Hyderabad, the southern abode of the President, and the Retreat in Simla, a wonderful estate near Mashobra, almost a thousand feet higher than the Simla Ridge.
The last days of the incumbent will slowly lapse as the attention turns to the President-elect. President Pratibha Patil would already be all packed to leave as she undertakes her last ceremonial task of attending the swearing-in ceremony of her successor.
She will leave Rashtrapati Bhavan as the President and return one last time, but as a former President. She would then be ceremonially sent off, accompanied by the new President. In the past it used to be to the airport or railway station, but since 1987, when Presidents started obtaining residences in Delhi, to their new residence.
In the meanwhile, the staff will do what they have now perfected, the art of catering to the whims and fancies of their new master and their aides and accomplices. The life would soon settle down to the rhythm of tradition absorbing change, with not a ripple noticeable.
In this, I pay tribute to the hundreds who serve with dignity, bear with fortitude and so far have never leaked a word of much that may be unseemly in the precincts of a palace which is both a home and a stage for diplomatic and ceremonial drama.
President Zail Singh when hosting the heads of Commonwealth countries for tea in 1983, on the sidelines of the Commonwealth Summit, walked them onto the rear Mughal Garden lawns. President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, when told by President Singh that the main building had over 300 rooms besides the basement, quipped that it seems the British were planning to never leave.
They left and the twelfth Indian occupant is in the process of doing so. The systems and traditions have by and large survived, but suffice it to say that the Bhavan has seen better days. Hopefully, the next resident will try to restore the lost shine.