By Kalyani Shankar
The only visible programme arranged for the visiting American First Lady Melania Trump, apart from posing for photographs with the background of the iconic Taj Mahal 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 any US First Lady had visited schools in India.
Melania showed an interest in the “happiness curriculum” introduced by the Delhi government as part of its innovative steps in refining the education system. It was launched on July 2, 2018 in the presence of Dalai Lama, to help children remain stress-free. The curriculum is being taught to about 10 lakh students in over 1,000 Delhi government schools, where there is a 45-minute “happiness class”, usually the first period daily for children in classes 1 to 8. Kindergarten children have the classes twice a week.
The “happiness curriculum” has become one of the show-piece projects of the Delhi government in the education sector. Last October, Dutch king Willem Alexander and Queen Maxima also witnessed a “happiness class”. Interestingly, Melania herself is promoting her own programme “Be Best” to help the kids, and it was launched in May 2018 in the US.
The American First Lady’s role is not just decorative as it hasevolved significantly since the days of Martha Washington, who played hostess to visiting dignitaries during George Washington’s presidency.They have made use of their global visits, including those to India, in a positive manner. Jacqueline Kennedy was one of the firsts who visited India in the sixties and made a terrific impression on the people. Indians were also so enamored of Rosalyn Carter that they renamed the Haryana village Chuma Kheragaoan as Carterpuri. Hillary Clinton was a household name and she continued her interest in India even after President Bill Clinton left office. Michele Obama enchanted India during her two visits. Now it is the turn of Melania Trump, one of the most glamorous First Ladies to visit India. However, she has kept a somewhat low profile. The Guardian once described Melania Trump 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. 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; and Michele Obama campaigned for better diets for children and so on. Melania Trump too focuses 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 D.C.’s first public charter school for girls at Excel Academy, Melaniahas showed her commitment to kids. During international visits, she had visited the American International School in Riyadh, and had taken calligraphy lessons with local children at Kyobashi Tsukiji Elementary School with Mrs. Abe while visiting Japan.
Melania Trump is involved in raising the awareness of opioid abuse and how to protect children from it. She has been promoting the “Be Best” awareness campaign focusing based on the three pillars of children’s safety — well-being, on line safety and the opioid abuse. According to the New York Times, though President Trump tried to dissuade her, she stuck to the cause. Palm Beach Atlantic University in Florida honored her this month as its 2020 ‘woman of distinction’.
Melania Trump has also faced criticism on her silence about not speaking out against President Trump’s tweets and comments like controversial separation policy where children on the border were removed and kept at detention centres. The Politico magazine has commented on President Trump leaving out mention of Melania’s “Be Best” initiative to the US lawmakers unlike other presidents who supported their wives’ initiatives.
Since Independence, there have been few visible and active first spouses of India’s presidents and prime ministers. Not much is known about the spouses of Rajendra Prasad and Dr. S. Radhakrishnan. Did you know that Rajendra Babu’s wife’s name was Rajvanshi Devi? V.V. Giri’s wife Saraswathi Bai took up a more public role. Abida Fakruddin Ali Ahmed became an MP twice. Pranab Mukherjee’s wife Suruva was ill most of the time. Giani Zail Singh nominated his daughter as his hostess.
In India, though the President’s wife is called the First Lady, the Prime Minister’s spouses are no less important. As spouse of former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, Lalitha Shastri was more a housewife. As the late former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s wife, Sonia Gandhi took deep interest in her role as the hostess, but didn’t show any political inclination at that time. Manmohan Singh’s wife Gurusharan Kaur was more visible. Vajpyaee had declared his daughter as his hostess and so had P.V. Narasimha Rao. I.K. Gujral and Deve Gowda had a short stint and their spouses were low profile. But most of them did not utilize their position like the American First Ladies in promoting any social cause or active in politics. (IPA Service)