Female President Elected in India

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 22, 2007

NEW DELHI, July 21 -- Lawmakers elected India's first female president, officials announced Saturday, in a vote seen as a step forward for hundreds of millions of Indian women and girls who face bitter discrimination in everyday life.

The position is largely ceremonial. But observers said the selection of Pratibha Patil, 72, in a vote by the national Parliament and state politicians, will widen the role of women in the country's often male-dominated political scene.

"This is a victory of the principles of which the Indian people uphold," said Patil, wearing her signature oversize glasses and a red and gold celebratory sari. As she waved a V-for-victory sign on television, marigolds and colored powders used in Hindu celebrations were tossed at her feet.

Patil had been expected to win because of support from the governing Congress party and her deep political ties and friendship with Sonia Gandhi, leader of the party and the powerful Gandhi dynasty. Patil is a steadfast loyalist of the Gandhi family, which has long maintained a strong hold over Indian politics.

Patil took in nearly two-thirds of the votes, defeating Vice President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, the candidate of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, a Hindu nationalist party.

Over four decades, Patil has held various political offices. A lawyer by training, she most recently served as the first female governor of the northern state of Rajasthan.

The usually sedate election process was tainted by angry accusations and a ferocious debate over Patil's qualifications for the job. Critics have accused Patil of trying to shield her brother in a murder inquiry, and they have accused some of her relatives of stealing loans meant for poor mothers from a bank she opened to empower women. They also accused her of saying, as health minister of Maharashtra state in 1975, that people with hereditary diseases should be sterilized.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his party defended her, saying she had little to do with running the bank. Singh said Saturday that her election was "a vote against the politics of divisiveness and in favor of unity."

The office of the presidency has long been used to give underrepresented groups a voice; there have been three Muslim presidents and one Sikh.

"But this is a special moment for women across the country," Sonia Gandhi said during a celebration at Patil's home in the city of Jalgaon, as firecrackers exploded. "It shows India is committed to women."

Several Indian women have served in high-ranking positions. In 1966, Indira Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi's mother-in-law, became one of the first female prime ministers in the world. But while women gain more political clout, widespread discrimination endures.

So many female babies are abandoned at birth that the government has set up cradles across the country for families to safely deposit the unwanted infants. Girls are viewed as an economic burden because, traditionally, a bride's father is required to pay a groom's family an often large dowry. The use of sonograms for sex selection is illegal but still practiced, and human rights groups estimate that about 10 million female fetuses have been aborted over the past two decades.

As many as 40 percent of Indian women are unable to read or write, the result of boys being given priority in education. And sexual harassment in the workplace remains a serious concern, even in urban centers.

Analysts said the president's role as commander in chief of the world's fourth-largest army is bound to have an impact on both women and men.

"Symbolically, this election matters a lot. It will impact the common woman's mind-set when she sees the three chiefs of army, navy and air force greeting a woman as their leader," said Ranjana Kumari, director of the Center for Social Research in New Delhi. "It will instill confidence. However, we are still a long way off from the true representation of women in all forms."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company