What doctor ordered but can’t get at home - Presidential honours from abroad

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  • Published 2.10.13

New Delhi, Oct. 1: The First Citizen is bringing back from foreign soil something he can’t expect at home for the next four years because he is a stickler for propriety.

Before the finance ministry cries “Code Red” and scours the President’s baggage for economy-busting gold, let the air be cleared: Pranab Mukherjee is earning honorary doctorates on all of the infrequent foreign trips he has been undertaking.

Such an honour from India’s top universities while Mukherjee is in office could involve a conflict of interest as the President is also the Visitor to several institutions.

Mukherjee has made just two foreign trips after taking over as President from Pratibha Patil in July 2012, and is embarking on his third on Wednesday, when he will travel first to Belgium and then to Turkey.

As on his previous trips to Bangladesh and Mauritius, Mukherjee will return from Turkey on October 8 with an honorary doctorate — his third from as many foreign trips.

This time, the honorary doctorate will be from the University of Istanbul. The University of Dhaka and the University of Mauritius conferred similar honours on him during his visits in March this year.

“Three out of three, it’s quite remarkable,” said a senior diplomat who will accompany the President. “When he was in active politics, he was always known as the man who could find a way around problems. He clearly has not lost his touch,” the diplomat added in jest.

The President of India holds the position of Visitor to all central universities, Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), National Institutes of Technology and other central higher education institutions.

The Visitor — the top authority at these institutions — needs to approve any move by these universities to award honorary doctorates. Although there is no specific ban on these institutions awarding an honorary doctorate to the President, the apparent conflict of interest has ensured that no centrally funded varsity has contemplated such a move.

Mukherjee is familiar with this unstated norm. IIT Kharagpur, the oldest of India’s premier technical schools, had decided to award Mukherjee, then the finance minister, an honorary doctorate last year.

But Mukherjee’s name was announced by the ruling UPA as its nominee for President before the convocation during which the institute had planned to honour him.

Mukherjee, then finance minister, indicated to the then human resource development minister Kapil Sibal that he would prefer avoiding any impression of impropriety, senior officials told The Telegraph. The IIT reversed its decision to award Mukherjee.

The veteran has earned Indian honorary doctorates — from Assam University, a central varsity, and from Karnataka’s Visvesvaraya Technological University — but both in early 2012 before he was nominated for the post of President. He was also awarded the honorary degree of Doctor in Letters by Wolverhampton University in 2011.

A few state and private Indian universities did award Patil, the former President, honorary doctorates while she was in Rashtrapati Bhavan. But the then President, who courted other controversies, steered clear of tributes from the central institutions under her.

Patil, who travelled to 22 countries over 12 foreign trips spread over five years cost the exchequer over Rs 200 crore, earned a solitary honorary doctorate on her visits — from the University of Chile in April 2008.

Mukherjee, who has so far chosen to limit his foreign travel, has, however, beaten his predecessor’s five-year count of foreign honorary doctorates in just over a year.

While Patil was plucked out of relative political obscurity for the top job by Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Mukherjee is a known face in many of the world’s capitals, including Ankara and Brussels.

“The leaderships of both Turkey and Belgium are familiar with the President,” Venu Rajamony, Mukherjee’s press secretary, said, referring to the multiple visits the President has made to both countries earlier either as external affairs minister or as finance minister.

Mukherjee is likely to receive gifts from his hosts in Belgium and Turkey. All Indian dignitaries and officials travelling abroad are expected to deposit the gifts they receive with a dedicated office known as the toshkhana where the gifts are valued.

The President won’t need to return his honorary doctorate though — it is one Turkish Delight he can keep.