Indian lawmakers choose country's first female president

Sunday, July 22, 2007
Children of R.R. High School celebrated the victory of newly elected Indian President Pratibha Patil on Saturday at her hometown Jalgaon, in the western Indian state of Maharashtra. Patil became the first woman to hold the post in a symbolic victory for the hundreds of millions of Indian women who contend with widespread discrimination. (Sakal)

NEW DELHI -- India chose its first female president Saturday in an election hailed as a victory for women in a country where gender discrimination is deep-rooted and widespread.

Still, it's not clear how much 72-year-old Pratibha Patil -- a lawyer, congresswoman and former governor of the northern state of Rajasthan -- can or will do in the mostly ceremonial post to improve the lives of her countrywomen.

Patil won 65.82 percent of the votes cast by national lawmakers and state legislators, said P.D.T. Achary, the secretary general of Parliament. She had the support of the governing Congress party and its political allies, and had been expected to win.

"It is a special moment for us women, and men of course, in our country because for the first time we have a woman being elected president of India," said Congress leader Sonia Gandhi, who hand-picked Patil and was one of the first to congratulate her.

While India has had several women in positions of power -- most notably Gandhi and her mother-in-law Indira Gandhi, who was elected to the more powerful position of prime minister in 1966 -- women still face rampant discrimination.

Newly elected Indian President Pratibha Patil, 72, talks to the press after the formal announcement of her victory in New Delhi, India, Saturday, July 21, 2007. Patil became Saturday the first woman to hold the post in a symbolic victory for the hundreds of millions of Indian women who contend with widespread discrimination. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

Many Indian families regard daughters as a liability due to a tradition requiring a bride's family to pay the groom's family a large dowry of cash and gifts. As a consequence, their education is often neglected, and many don't get adequate medical treatment when ill. If they are widowed, they are considered a burden on their children or families and face even more discrimination.

International groups also estimate that some 10 million female fetuses have been aborted in India over the last two decades as families show a widespread preference for sons.

Hundreds of delighted Congress Party supporters danced in the streets as the results were announced Saturday, banging drums and setting off firecrackers outside her home in New Delhi and in her hometown in the state of Maharashtra.

"This is a victory of the principles of which our Indian people uphold," Patil said, flashing the victory sign.

Patil received 2,489 out of the 2,706 votes cast Thursday by national lawmakers and state legislators, defeating incumbent Vice President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, the candidate of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, in a race dogged by unprecedented mudslinging.

Opponents derided her nomination, saying she lacked the national stature for the job and complaining that her only qualification was unswerving loyalty to the powerful Gandhi family.

Patil's emergence on the national stage highlighted several scandals involving family members, including two who are under investigation by police.

Her comments ahead of the election calling on Indian women to abandon wearing headscarves were roundly denounced by Muslim leaders and by historians -- who disputed her assertion that women only started wearing headscarves in India to save themselves from 16th century Muslim invaders.

Patil's nomination surprised many, given her lack of national recognition despite more than four decades in politics.

She was a lawyer before entering politics and became a member of the state legislature in 1962. She was appointed a minister several times in the Maharashtra state government between 1962 and 1985, then in the following decade served as a member of the Indian Parliament.

Her most recent post was governor of the northern state of Rajasthan.

Patil, who is married and has two children, will be sworn in as India's 13th president on July 25. She replaces the popular A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who has ended his five-year term and following custom did not seek a second term.

The election of a woman to the post continues an Indian tradition of using the presidency to give a high-profile voice to disadvantaged communities.

India has had three Muslim presidents, including Kalam, since winning independence from Britain in 1947. It has also had a president from the minority Sikh community. Kalam's predecessor, K.R. Narayanan, came from the bottom of the society's complex social hierarchy.

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