India’s missing first spouses
Since 1947, there have been few visible and active first spouses of India’s presidents and prime ministers
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New Delhi: It was only in the news of her death that most Indians learnt about Suvra Mukherjee, though she was married to President Pranab Mukherjee for almost 59 years.
She died on 18 August.
Mukherjee had been unwell for quite some time and was wheelchair-bound because of which she was unable to play the role of the hostess during Pranab Mukherjee’s tenure as a cabinet minister or when he became the President.
Mukherjee had no role officially, but with her death, the top political leadership of the country is now bereft of any “first spouse”, considering that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has never lived with his wife.
It is not the first time that the Indian political establishment is facing such a situation. In fact, since independence, there have been few visible and active first spouses of the occupants of the prime minister’s and president’s office.
Indira Gandhi served as a hostess for her father Jawaharlal Nehru, while he was prime minister till 1964. The spouses of the first and second presidents of India, Rajendra Prasad and S. Radhakrishnan, made but a few appearances.
Later, Abida Ahmed, wife of Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, India’s President during 1974-77, went on to forge a political career of her own after leaving Rashtrapati Bhavan. She was elected twice to the Lok Sabha from Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh in 1980 and then 1984. Usha Narayanan, wife of former president K.R.Narayanan (1997-2002) was involved in welfare activities for women.
“Not many of our presidents or prime ministers have had spouses, who are either active or visible in public life. In fact, the only presidential spouse, who made his way into public consciousness, was Devisingh Shekhawat, the husband of Pratibha Patil, and for entirely different reasons,” says Bengaluru-based sociologist S.L. Rao.
Former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a bachelor but his foster daughter Namita played the hostess during official functions.
According to Rao, there is no customary role for the first spouse in India. This is unlike Western countries, particularly the US, where the first lady has her own staff and pursues certain agendas, though mostly non-political.
Michelle Obama, for instance, has chosen to focus on the problem of obesity. Hillary Clinton, of course, was an exception to this rule. Today, she is one of the most powerful women in the world, quite like another first spouse, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, though their trajectory to their respective positions have been vastly different. “Even Sonia Gandhi kept a very low profile as the first spouse,” says Rao. In fact, Sonia Gandhi maintained a low profile till her entry into politics.
Indian protocol dictates that the prime minister’s wife attends social functions and gatherings —both during visits abroad and home, but there is no participatory role for them. “The spouses don’t really play any role whatsoever in shaping relations, etc.,” says Delhi-based political analyst Bidyut Chakraborty.
But while officially their role is limited, a spouse can help in breaking the ice or even developing rapport with other world leaders.
Gursharan Kaur, with her traditional saris and dignified demeanour, was a constant companion of prime minister Manmohan Singh on his visits, attending all the events for first ladies during international summits. News reports mentioned the camaraderie she shared with Michelle Obama.
Sehba Musharraf, wife of former Pakistan president general Pervez Musharraf, famously told a gathering of women in India in 2001 that she would try and talk to her husband about peace—“in my language...in the best possible way”.
“But even if the spouses do not impact policies or diplomacy, their presence makes the leaders look more humane. Their interaction with spouses and partners of other leaders can help them develop a better understanding of personalities and customs of the leaders, if they come visiting or they go on an official tour. The nature of international relations has changed substantially,” says a former bureaucrat, who did not want to be named.
The thorny question of hosting the spouse of a visiting foreign head of state first arose when the US President Barack Obama came calling in January. While Michelle Obama chose to keep a low profile, with no separate engagements scheduled for her, presence of a first spouse could have perhaps made a difference.
Chakraborty says it does not really matter that both men occupying the highest offices of the land don’t have a spouse by their side.
But in an increasingly smaller world of international co-operation and trade, this policy might not continue for long.