India’s Patil presidency: A wasted opportunity in image building
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India’s Patil presidency: A wasted opportunity in image building

Twitterer One: Pratibha Patil looked like the kind of aunty who would never return your cricket ball if you knocked it inside her house.

Twitterer Two (in reply to One): Her successor looks as if he will sock your skull back with the same ball.

The two are samples of disparaging comments that technology now makes it possible to be made in the public domain while previously they were restricted to college canteens and in office washrooms.

However crude such PJs may appear, the fact is that public personalities have to contend with the reality of oddballs coming out with one-liners that may destroy their image and credibility. They have to learn how to insulate from vitriol. The solution does not lie in the strategy used by Mamata Banerjee some months ago when she got a professor hauled up for circulating a cartoon making fun of her.

PratibhaPatil

Pratibha Patil. Pic: AP.

Though no public figure can completely insulate oneself completely from online ridicule, they can – by better management of their public image – project a more amiable image by better management of the media tools available. Understanding media is imperative and projecting an image is essential.

This thought crossed the mind a couple of days ago when I – with some members of my family – got a chance to be part of a select group of people to meet the Indian President – Pratibha Devisinh Patil. There was no agenda to the meeting and it had been arranged by an old friend and colleague purely as a courtesy call before the President demitted office. The group comprised a journalist or two, some scholars, some members of voluntary action groups and a few children.

The first thought that came to my mind after the meeting – and I cross-checked with the better-half afterwards – was that the President, in person, appeared in complete contrast to her public image as seen for the past five years. Gone was the stern plastic face and in its place was an extremely amiable person who mingled with the children in the group – including our little granddaughter, and heard all the people with real intent. The multitude of last minute ceremonial farewell functions prevented President Patil from spending more time with us but what lingered on after she left the room was the complete failure of her public relations team in projecting her persona.

Every person has her or his own strengths and weakness. President Patil succeeded a flamboyant person who made it a point to break protocol and specifically wooed the middle classes with such success that APJ Abdul Kalam found rousing support among them when his name surfaced in the course of the just concluded presidential poll.

Five years down the line, it is evident that the image managers of President Patil had no clear strategy to ensure her permanence in history. This blog is hardly the space that can assess President Patil’s presidency. A few hundred words is also not sufficient space to evaluate her role as President. But the experience at the meeting was sufficient to conclude that as far as her image building was concerned, it has been a case of wasted opportunity.

Ironically, in her farewell speech on July 23, President Patil told members of Parliament that the past two decades has seen “changes such as an information explosion” and that unless there was an attempt to reflect on these changes “our systems and institutions could be out-of-size and out-of-time”.