US First Ladies leave their mark

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US First Ladies leave their mark

Thursday, 27 February 2020 | Kalyani Shankar

While the American First Lady’s role has evolved over the years, this is not the case in India. One just hopes that the spouses of future leaders of the country will come out from under the shadow of their husbands

The only visible programme arranged for the visiting US First Lady Melania Trump, apart from posing for photographs with the iconic Taj Mahal serving as a majestic backdrop and waving at the massive crowds lustily greeting the American First Couple in Ahmedabad, was a visit to a Delhi Government school on Tuesday. This was the first time that a US First Lady visited a school in India. The visit was arranged as Melania showed an interest in the “happiness curriculum” introduced by the Delhi Government as part of its innovative move to refine the education system. It was launched on July 2, 2018 in the presence of the Dalai Lama, to help students remain stress-free. The curriculum is being taught to an estimated 10 lakh students in over 1,000 schools. The daily 45-minute “happiness class” is usually the first period for students in classes I to VIII, while Kindergarten children have classes twice a week.

The “happiness curriculum” has become one of the showcase projects of the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) Government in the education sector. In October 2019 Dutch King Willem Alexander and Queen Maxima also witnessed a “happiness class.”

The US First Lady’s role is not restricted to being just decorative and has evolved significantly since the days of Martha Washington who played hostess to visiting dignitaries during George Washington’s presidency. They have always made use of their global visits in a positive manner.

Jacqueline Kennedy, who visited India in the ’60s made a terrific impression on the people.

Indians were also so enamoured by Rosalyn Carter and her husband Jimmy that the village of Chuma Kheragaon in Haryana was renamed Carterpuri in honour of their visit.  Hillary Clinton was a household name in the country and she continued her interest in India even after she ceased being the First Lady. Similarly, Michelle Obama enchanted India during her two visits.

Melania’s visit also generated quite a bit of interest as she was one of the most glamorous First Ladies to visit the country and her carefully-chosen outfits created quite a stir, with the fashion police appreciating two and dissing the third. However, apart from her obvious glamour quotient, she has kept a somewhat low profile. The Guardian newspaper once described Melania as “seldom seen and even more seldom heard. The former model may not be as popular as her predecessor Michelle Obama, but she is far more popular than her husband.”

Incidentally, many First Ladies have supported some special cause close to their hearts using their celebrity status. While Jacqueline Kennedy promoted American arts, Eleanor Roosevelt took up progressive causes, including civil liberties, Hillary Clinton came up with a new health plan, Laura Bush promoted literacy, Michelle Obama a better diets for children and so on. Melania Trump, too, focusses on issues affecting children.  In the past four years she has made multiple visits to schools — both in the US and abroad. From participating in a Viking huddle class, in Michigan, to taking the Queen of Jordan to Washington DC’s first public charter school for girls at Excel Academy, Melania showed her commitment to kids. During international trips, she has visited the American International School in Riyadh and took a calligraphy lesson with local children at a Kyobashi Tsukiji Elementary School with Akie Abe while visiting Japan. Melania is also involved in an initiative to help American children that she launched in May 2018. The awareness campaign, called “Be Best,” is dedicated to children’s well-being, cyberbullying and opioid abuse.

According to The New York Times, though President Trump tried to dissuade her from getting involved in the initiative, Melania stuck to the cause. The Palm Beach Atlantic University in Florida honoured her this month as its “2020 woman of distinction.” But Melania has faced criticism for not speaking out against her husband’s tweets and actions, like the controversial separation policy where children caught on the border were split up from their parents and kept at detention centres.

However, unlike the US, there have been few visible and active spouses of Indian presidents and prime ministers. Not much is known about the wives of Presidents Rajendra Prasad and S Radhakrishnan. Thankfully, VV Giri’s wife Saraswati Bai took up a more public role and Abida Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed became an MP twice. Pranab Mukherjee’s wife Suvra was unwell most of the time and Giani Zail Singh nominated his daughter as his hostess.

Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri’s wife Lalitha was more of a housewife and most of the others followed suit. However, Sonia Gandhi took interest in her role as the hostess and Manmohan Singh’s wife Gursharan Kaur was also more visible. PV Narasimha Rao declared his daughter as his hostess and the wives of IK Gujral and Deve Gowda kept a low profile.

Sadly, most of them did not utilise their position like the American First Ladies to promote any social cause or take active part in politics.

One just hopes that the spouses of future leaders of the country will come out from under the shadow of their husbands.

(The writer is a senior journalist)

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