It is doubtful that Mahatma Gandhi would have approved of the first President of India and his successors taking up residence in what had been christened by its builders as the Viceregal Palace. The colonial masters of India wished to overawe the natives, hence the magnificence of the Viceregal abode. However, a post-colonial Head of State ought to reside in quarters that are more congruent with the reality of India being among the poorest countries of the globe in per capita terms. This columnist welcomes the naming of Bihar Governor R.N. Kovind as the NDA candidate for President of India. The only stone thrown at him is that he was reported as opposing the effort by some within those communities to allow “Christian Backwards and Dalits” as also “Muslim Dalits and Backwards” to compete for the quota reserved for Backward Classes and Dalits. Such protagonists insult the Christian and Muslim faiths, neither of which stands for the scientifically unsound notion of “caste due to the accident of birth” within their theologies. Governor Kovind must not be faulted for pointing this out.
However, choosing a proper successor to Pranab Mukherjee is not enough. What needs to also get done, and indeed what ought to have been done on 15 August 1947 was to ensure that the Head of State of free India make as his or her official residence a complex of structures, other than what was till then the hub of Government of India. It is incorrect to say that the Viceregal Palace was the residence of the Head of State, for that role belonged to the British monarch. If the native successors to the British colonial authorities wanted the incoming Head of State to reside in the same accommodations as used by their predecessors in the UK, they ought to have put in a bid for Buckingham Palace. The fact is that the present Rashtrapati Bhawan was the seat of the Government of India, and in a democracy, this is led by an authority elected by the people, rather than chosen in an indirect manner the way the President of India has been and will be. The function of the complex of structures known collectively as Rashtrapati Bhawan should, therefore, be to serve as the hub of governance in the country. This implies that the complex ought to house the offices and the residences of the Prime Minister as well as the Ministers of Home, Finance, External Affairs and Defence. The Big Five of the Government of India should live and work in the present Rashtrapati Bhawan complex, so that it functions 24/7 as the vortex of the administration. This would be on the lines of Zhongnanhai in Beijing and the Kremlin in Moscow. Another sprawling government-owned mansion could be set aside for the President of India. Whether by design or by the tendency of the bureaucracy to abhor change, the former Viceregal Palace has continued to be occupied by this country’s Heads of State after the Mountbattens left, when its role ought to have been to house the core of the administration in India, i.e., the Prime Minister and his or her five key ministers.
Rashtrapati Bhawan should function on the lines of Zhongnanhai and Kremlin. Another sprawling mansion could be set aside for President of India.
Such a move would of course be opposed by the denizens of the Lutyens Zone, who would be concerned that their own nests of privilege may be at risk, were such a change to get effected. They have ignored the poverty of India in, for example, the conversion into memorials of state-provided residences after the passing of those residing in them. Certainly Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Lal Bahadur Shastri merit memorials and even museums. However, these should not be in their places of stay while in high office. There is no logic in freezing the utilisation of pricey state assets in a manner reminiscent of the Mughal fetish of dotting Delhi with tombs. Instead, what needs to be done is for the memorials and museums to be located elsewhere, and funded, not out of the exchequer, but from private pockets. In the US, successive Presidents have established libraries in their name, but these have overwhelmingly been privately funded. When some VVIPs passed on, their official residences got converted into memorials. Were that to be standard practice at the Vatican after the demise of a pontiff, by now the whole of Rome would have been covered with former papal residences. As in the US or the UK, the official residences of the highest officials should be marked with permanence rather than be as subject to change as they have been in India.
The Rashtrapati Bhawan complex could be renamed Lok Kalyan Bhawan once it houses the Big Five in the Union Council of Ministers, while the present residence of the Prime Minister (7 Racecourse Road, now 7 Lok Kalyan Marg) could be converted into a residential complex for other Cabinet-level individuals, while the Prime Minister (for reasons of administrative convenience and security) and his four key ministers stay and work within the present Rashtrapati Bhawan complex, which needs to return to its original role of housing the highest decision-making levels within the Central government. The fiction that it is the President of India, rather than the Union Cabinet, who takes the decisions issued in the name of the Head of State is similar to the practice followed by Westminster. The beating heart of the Government of India comprises the Prime Minister and his key Cabinet colleagues, and it is they who ought to reside in the complex of structures atop Raisina Hill that would once again form the core of governance in India rather than remain a ceremonial abode.