Hope, doubts as India eyes first woman president | delhi | Hindustan Times
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Hope, doubts as India eyes first woman president

delhi Updated: Jun 15, 2007 16:25 IST
Reuters
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Indian women activists hailed on Friday the possibility of the country getting its first woman president even as some commentators said the choice of a low-profile politician could weaken the position.

India's Congress-led ruling coalition chose veteran politician Pratibha Patil late on Thursday to run for what is largely a ceremonial position, elections for which will be held next month if the opposition puts up a candidate as planned.

Patil, 72, is the governor of Rajasthan and was a surprise choice. She was picked after Congress and its leftist allies failed to agree on other names.

"This is a matter of pride for a country like India that a woman could become president," said Pramila Pandhe, vice-president of the All India Democratic Women's Association, an umbrella group.

"This will send a strong signal about the progress of women within the country as well as internationally when even a country like the United States has not had a woman president," she said.

Indira Gandhi was one of the world's first woman prime ministers, ruling for most of the period from 1966 to 1984, while her daughter-in-law Sonia Gandhi is one of the country's most powerful figures, as head of the ruling Congress Party.

The president of India is the ceremonial head of state, like the British monarch. Executive power is exercised in the name of the president by the council of ministers headed by the prime minister.

But the president has important discretionary powers in the process of choosing a prime minister when no party wins a majority in parliamentary elections, and can also return bills sent for assent before they become law.


Objectivity questioned

The post has mostly been occupied by ageing politicians who were seen to be non-controversial and acceptable to the party in power at the time.

That tradition was broken in 2002 when the then ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) picked Muslim scientist APJ Abdul Kalam, considered the father of India's missile programme.

His term ends on July 24 and the BJP has refused to back Patil. Instead, they are expected to support Vice President Bhairon Singh Shekawat, a former BJP leader.

Political analysts said Patil had the edge since the Congress-led coalition appeared to have the numbers in its favour. The president is elected by an electoral college of MPs and elected members of state legislatures.

Although Patil has served as a member of parliament, deputy speaker of its upper house and a minister in her home state of Maharashtra, some analysts said her strong loyalty to Congress opened her objectivity to question.

"On the face of it, choosing a woman seems like a good, tactical move," said N Bhaskara Rao, political analyst at New Delhi's Centre for Media Studies.

"But Kalam set certain standards, elevated the position to new heights of objectivity," he said, referring to the incumbent who became popular as the "people's president" for his easy accessibility and friendly demeanour.

"Knowing Patil's loyalties and her background, it is doubtful she will be able to follow those standards."

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