I entered Parliament in the late 1960s, and since then my political life has moved around the buildings on Raisina Hill―North Block, South Block and Parliament House. I never thought I would come to this house [Rashtrapati Bhavan] one day as its resident, though I had come here on a number of occasions to be sworn in as minister under prime ministers, from Indira Gandhi to Dr Manmohan Singh. I also came here several times to join the banquets hosted for visiting dignitaries by the presidents, starting from the time of V.V. Giri.
Also, I had, on special occasions―almost eight―come to the Rashtrapati Bhavan in my capacity as finance minister before presenting the budget. It is customary to obtain the signature of the president on the budget paper the day it is presented in Parliament. From the days of the British, this has perhaps been the practice. Just on the day, not before nor after. The normal practice is that one hour before the presentation of the budget, the cabinet is informed about the provisions with the objective of obtaining its approval, because, except the prime minister, and, of course, the finance minister, no other member of the cabinet knows the full details. Just before that, the finance minister explains the budgetary provisions to the president and obtains his/her approval and signature on the budget papers.
As a student of history, the Rashtrapati Bhavan has always been an object of interest to me. Naturally, I wanted to know the place where the Gandhi-Irwin pact was signed on March 5, 1931; what exactly happened before the then interim government members met Lord Mountbatten before the declaration of June 2, 1947, which rolled out the partition plan―the broadcast of the declaration was arranged taking into account the time difference. British prime minister Clement Attlee announced it in the House of Commons followed by the broadcasts of Lord Mountbatten, and the Indian leaders―Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Quaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar, Sardar Baldev Singh and Syama Prasad Mookerjee.
In the Cabinet Room of the president’s summer residence in Shimla, there is a map that shows the sea routes to India. The countries are being represented by their symbols. The Persian Gulf is represented by camels and Bedouins. There are many such interesting maps, and every room of the Rashtrapati Bhavan is full of books. The President’s Library was a subject of my own interest. I have not discarded any book. I got them catalogued so that it becomes easy for a reader or a researcher to find them.
Fortunately, three of our presidents were great scholars―Dr Rajendra Prasad, Dr S. Radhakrishnan and Dr Zakir Hussain. The library was very important to them. Dr Radhakrishnan used to read while on his bed, and some pictures in the First Citizen coffee-table book show him holding discussions while in bed. Some of the books are of extreme significance in that they have the signature of the viceroy or the governor general. The proceedings of the Central Assembly, brought from Calcutta, are being chronicled and maintained here. All the rooms have been restored to its original form.
The Ashoka Hall used to be a dancing room, the grand ball room of the Viceroy House. In those days, the guests used to assemble first, after which the viceroy and the vicereine would arrive. There is a huge cupboard where the viceroy and the vicereine used to keep their dynastic regalia. It is a huge wardrobe, and it is still being maintained. A person of my height cannot reach, but surely the ADCs were of six feet plus in those days. I don’t know whether any governor general was of short size, but I know quite a few of them were soldiers and all of them were warriors. You can find many of them in their original uniforms, mostly naval uniforms, including Lord Mountbatten. Lord Wavell was, of course, an army man. The rooms above the Ashoka Hall have now been converted into guest wings.
Now, most of the state functions are held in the Durbar Hall. It was here Nehru was sworn in; C. Rajagopalachari assumed office; Lord Mountbatten became the governor general of independent India.
We have another desire. Scholars of history are helping us identify the rooms where historic events took place, so that we can put up short notes describing the significance of the rooms. I got the idea when I visited the Whitehall, London, as foreign minister. As I entered the room where my lunch was arranged, I found a small plate outside that said ‘Locarno Room’. I asked the secretary of state whether the room was associated with the Locarno Treaty, and he said, “Of course, this is where it was signed. I will show you the table and the pens used in signing the treaty.” The Rashtrapati Bhavan has also witnessed such historic events from the time it was first occupied by Lord Irwin in 1931.
The viceroys occupied it only for 16 years, but those years were eventful. India was made a party to World War II, the broadcast was made by Lord Linlithgow, but, from where did he make the broadcast? From where did President Radhakrishnan make the national broadcast when war was declared against Pakistan in 1965? All these major events are associated with this building and we are trying to chronicle it. We are also going to restore the museums. There will be two museums―The Garages and The Stables.
The Stables is going to be ready shortly, and it is likely to be inaugurated on July 25. For many of these things, I am grateful to the Malayala Manorama Group. Since the time I assumed office, they have been bringing out a column, First Citizen, in THE WEEK. It is not on me, but on issues related to the Rashtrapati Bhavan. And now they have brought out this coffee-table book, which contains many important events and photographs, which will be of interest to you.
Extracted from the President’s speech at the release of the coffee-table book First Citizen.
From the president’s desk
The fundamental duty and responsibility of the President in our political system is to be the guardian of the Constitution. But, going beyond this task, there are many areas in which Presidents have chosen to carve out their areas of interest.
My focus, among other things, has been to open the Rashtrapati Bhavan to the people of India and return it to its past grandeur.
The last two years have been busy and eventful. Many projects have been completed. Others are nearing completion. Many more are in the offing. I am delighted that THE WEEK has been a fellow traveller on this journey. I look forward to its continued companionship in the days to come.
I compliment... all members of the Manorama family for this book. The Malayala Manorama Group, with its 125 years of history, represents the best in journalism anywhere in the world. THE WEEK is a true inheritor of this great tradition.
Excerpted from President Pranab Mukherjee’s message in the book First Citizen.