He opened up Rashtrapati Bhavan to the people

New Delhi, July 21 (IANS) His Facebook page has over 35,000 likes, he is on YouTube, he has done away with excessive security to mingle with the crowd, stuffy honorifics have been replaced and the palatial Rashtrapati Bhavan has been thrown open to visits by the public - just some of the things that President Pranab Mukherjee has done in his first year in office to live up to being a 'peoples president'.

Mukherjee, 77, who became India's 13th president last year after an active political life of over 40 years, has kept up the momentum of being a president who thinks differently and yet maintaining the decorum of the high office since taking over the country's top job, largely seen as ceremonial.

In his acceptance speech July 25 last year, Mukherjee had a telling line about his journey from "the flicker of a lamp in a small Bengal village to the chandeliers of Delhi".

And he has seen to it that he remains rooted to the soil and in touch with the people despite the exalted nature of his office and the pomposity of some of its ceremonies.

Right from his well-crafted speeches, which always have something to say to the people, his decision to drop the honorific of "His Excellency", his decision to confine most presidential functions within the Rashtrapati Bhavan to prevent inconveniencing the public, and to the more controversial one of rejecting the mercy petition of parliament attack convict Afzal Guru - Mukherjee has always been in the public eye.

In much the same way that he has interacted with people and held important meetings during his years as MP and as a minister holding top portfolios, Mukherjee continues to meet parliamentarians and members of the judiciary and dignitaries.

"He has not slowed down in any way. He leads a full life, large number of people come to meet him to seek his counsel, invite him to functions," said a Rashtrapati Bhavan insider.

After a 45 minute walk in the Mughal Gardens every morning, followed by a puja, Mukherjee begins his work at 11 a.m. He watches parliament proceedings closely and keeps track of all the happenings.

"He interacts closely with the government, with parliamentarians and leaders of opposition parties," said the source, who would like to keep himself unidentified because of official protocol.

He has made efforts to reach out to the public. During the Republic Day reception this year, held at the sprawling lawns of Rashtrapati Bhavan, Mukherjee walked amongst the large crowds gathered, greeting people and shaking hands - in a first for a president.

Tours to Rashtrapati Bhavan are open to the public three days a week, the change of guard ceremony every Saturday has been thrown open to the public, the library and its trove of ancient books, which were in an unkempt state earlier, have been restored and catalogued.

Besides opening up to the public, Mukherjee has sought to create more facilities for the large number of Rashtrapati Bhavan staff. The president has begun sports facilities for the children of staffers.

"A talent hunt was conducted from among the children of the Rashtrapati Bhavan staff, including gardeners and butlers, to provide them coaching and have them use the sports facilities available," said Venu Rajamony, the president's press secretary.

The president is also getting a library built for the staff in one of the heritage buildings of the president's estate that had been earmarked for demolition, he informed.

Along with getting several rooms of the 340-room presidential palace renovated and redecorated, including the Durbar Hall, Vivekananda and Tagore suites, for official and public functions, Mukherjee has also renovated the homes of the Rashtrapati Bhavan staff in accordance with Green Building principles and opened shops and haats for the staffers.

The president has also roped in the Indian National Trust For Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) for conservation of the 320-acre presidential estate.

"The president believes the Rashtrapati Bhavan is a living heritage building where the president lives and works, where cabinet swearing-ins are held, foreign dignitaries come to pay a call, and also has a large Rashtrapati Bhavan community...It should be conducive to functioning, the needs of efficiency should be met," Rajamony told IANS.

He has travelled widely in India and except for a few states, including Gujarat, Goa, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya, he has visited all. His maiden visit abroad after becoming president was to Bangladesh, where he is extremely popular, and with which India shares close and friendly ties.

His rejection of Afzal Guru's mercy petition did kick up a controversy, but Mukherjee who is known to be a stickler for rules and conventions, went by the advice of the government. He has not kept things pending and the constitution is very clear that the president has to accept the advice of the cabinet, an aide told IANS.

(Ranjana Narayan can be contacted at ranjana.n@ians.in )

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