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Wanted, a house for an ex-PM

- AT THE TOP IN NEW DELHI, IT INDEED IS A SMALL WORLD

New Delhi, Feb. 6: Unlike Rajiv Gandhi a quarter century ago, Manmohan Singh will be spared the need to joke about “ghosts” after stepping down as Prime Minister.

For the first time, a hunt has begun beforehand to find a retirement home for a serving Prime Minister, for Singh is the first incumbent to have announced his retirement in advance.

If a new bungalow in Lutyens Delhi is selected and renovated in time for him, Singh can move out as soon as his tenure ends.

This will avoid a situation often seen in the past two decades — of a new Prime Minister having to drive down to office at an address his predecessor is still occupying.

This is because since Rajiv Gandhi’s term, 7 Race Course Road has been housing not just the Prime Minister’s residence but his office too. Technically, like all other MPs, Prime Ministers are entitled to stay on at their official residences for a month after their tenure ends.

Rajiv had, however, vacated the premises immediately for V.P. Singh after losing the 1989 election and moved into 10 Janpath while it was still being renovated by an unprepared central public works department (CPWD).

A CPWD engineer recalled how Rajiv, when told that 10 Janpath was “jinxed”, had laughed it off saying: “Jab woh bhoot is bhoot ko dekhega toh woh bhag jayega (When that ghost sees this one, he will run away).”

All former Prime Ministers are entitled to a Type 8 bungalow, the highest category. Sources said a few bungalows had been shortlisted and Singh’s family informed about them.

Since Singh will continue to receive Special Protection Group cover, the security agencies too are being kept in the loop.

One of the bungalows the government is looking at is 5 Janpath, which was allotted to former Prime Minister I.K. Gujral, who died on November 30, 2012, about a year after his wife Sheila passed away in July 2011. The house has now fallen vacant.

“We need to carry out all the required renovations beforehand. Also, the bungalow has to be fortified according to security requirements; so work has to begin well in advance,” a CPWD official explained.

He, however, remained tight-lipped about the other houses on the shortlist.

The first prime ministerial resident of 7 Race Course Road was Rajiv, at whose behest the premises were turned into a permanent address as the Prime Minister’s office-cum-residence.

Earlier, Rajiv used to live at 1 Safdarjung Road, his mother’s address as Prime Minister. Indira Gandhi occupied two Lutyens bungalows — 1 Akbar Road and 1 Safdarjung Road — which had been linked to form her residence-cum-office.

When she was assassinated at home on October 31, 1984, her son decided to convert the address into a memorial for her.

Since 1989, the Gandhi family has been living at 10 Janpath, around which superstition had swirled because many of those associated with the bungalow had either died or fallen off the political radar.

Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri once used the bungalow as his office; he died in harness. Years later, it was occupied by former RBI governor L.K. Jha, who later entered the Rajya Sabha and died before his tenure ended.

Chandra Shekhar was the only Prime Minister since Rajiv not to move into 7 Race Course Road. The Prime Minister’s Office, however, continued to function from that address, with Chandra Shekhar driving down from his 3 South Avenue bungalow during his seven-month stint.

Chandra Shekhar’s son Neeraj Shekhar, a Lok Sabha member, now resides at 3 South Avenue.

In 2004, the Union urban development ministry had failed to identify and prepare a retirement home for then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, whose NDA coalition was widely expected to win the election.

Vajpayee stayed on for nearly a month till 6A Krishna Menon Marg was readied for him. Till then, Manmohan Singh attended office at 7 Race Course Road while living at 19 Safdarjung Road, his home of six years as the Rajya Sabha leader of the Opposition.

Singh first began living in Delhi in 1969 when he joined the Delhi School of Economics as a professor and was allotted a house on the Delhi University campus.

Since then, he has been in the capital as the holder of various prestigious posts, including those of Reserve Bank governor and Union finance minister, except for a three-year stint in Geneva (1987-90) in a UN posting.