India elects first woman president

Updated: 2007-07-21 20:44

Pratibha Patil, 72, governor of the northwestern desert state of Rajasthan, smiles as she arrives at the airport for her presidential campaign, in the northern Indian city of Chandigarh, July 7, 2007. [Reuters]
NEW DELHI,  - India elected its first female president on July 21, official results showed, in what supporters called a boost for the rights of millions of downtrodden women, despite a bitter campaign marked by scandal.

Pratibha Patil, the ruling coalition's 72-year-old nominee for the mainly ceremonial post, easily beat opposition-backed challenger and standing Vice President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat in a vote by the national parliament and state politicians.

"This a victory of the people," Patil told reporters after official results were announced. "I am grateful to the people of India and the men and women of India and this is a victory for the principles which our Indian people uphold."

Patil won about two thirds of the electoral college votes. There had never been any doubt she would win, given support from the ruling coalition.

The governor of the northwestern desert state Rajasthan, she emerged on the national stage when the Congress-led coalition and its communist allies failed to agree on a joint candidate.

Congress leader Sonia Gandhi, India's most powerful politician, had called Patil's nomination a "historic moment" and proof the country "respects women".

Supporters hoped Patil's candidacy would help bring issues that plague women in India -- like dowry-related violence -- into the public spotlight.

Her presidency also reflects the growing power of some women in India, where an increasing number are taking part in the workforce and in schools and hold senior positions in corporations as India enters the globalised economy.

As the results of the presidential polls poured in, celebrations in Rajasthan started, with people singing and dancing as others lit fire crackers and beat large brass drums.

India has had a few female icons in the past -- most famously Sonia Gandhi's mother-in-law Indira, who was one of the world's first female prime ministers in 1966.


But hope Patil's presidency would spark only positive talk about women's influence in India evaporated when it emerged the bank for woman she helped established was closed in 2003 because of bad debts amid accusations of financial irregularities.

The employees' union has taken Patil and others to court, claiming loans meant for poor women were instead given to her brother and other relatives and not returned. She was also accused of trying to shield her brother in a murder inquiry.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has dismissed the charges as "mud-slinging", and Congress says she had very little to do with the running of the bank.

"All the allegations against me are motivated and have already been answered," Patil said in a statement last week.

Her campaign was marked by other mishaps as well.

She managed to offend many minority Muslims -- and anger some historians -- by saying Indian women first veiled their heads as protection against 16th century Muslim invaders.

Then she dismayed modern India by claiming she had experienced a "divine premonition" that she was destined for higher office from a long dead spiritual guru.

Critics also dug up a comment she was said to have made as Maharashtra's health minister in 1975, saying people with hereditary diseases should be sterilised.


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