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Life less ordinary

The only sister among five brothers, married without dowry, her children raised by her maasis…Things that don’t figure on the CV of India’s surprise presidential candidate, writes Sujata Anandan.

india Updated: Jun 16, 2007 12:24 IST
Sujata Anandan

Pratibha Patil’s father Narayanrao Patil, wanted her to be a lawyer, not a politician. But when the principal of her college spotted her talent for connecting with people, he decided she was more suited to politics. Pratibhatai, as she is known in Maharashtra, then decided she would satisfy both her elders. She took a law degree and plunged into social work in her hometown Jalgaon.

By the time she was ready to contest her first election in 1962, her father had come round to her professor’s viewpoint. He then told her, “I have some money put by for you. But I have decided I am not paying your dowry. If you want to contest the elections, you will need money. So you can use the nest egg I have collected for you for your politics.”

No dowry please

Pratibhatai, too, did not want any dowry to be given. “I will not marry a man who wants money from my father,” she said and put that money to good use contesting the election. She won and kept winning the Assembly polls till 1985 after which she switched to Parliament.

In between, though, she met and married Devisinh Shekhawat whose family migrated from Sikar district in Rajasthan to Amravati in Vidarbha. Shekhawat was teaching then and they suited each other fine because Devisinh, too, did not want to marry a girl for her dowry.

He wanted an educated wife and that was rare in the community those days. They married in 1965 but when she became the first and only woman minister in Maharashtra in the V P Naik cabinet, Pratibha requested her husband to move to Bombay for her sake — she could not have lived alone in the ministerial bungalow allotted to her at that time.

Family bonding

Before her marriage, though, Pratibhatai’s father took good care to ensure that one or the other of her five brothers (all of them either lawyers or doctors) kept an eagle eye on their one and only sister. In that sense, Pratibhatai has been very fortunate in making her way in a man’s world.

She has risen purely on the basis of her talent. Her family — before marriage and after — has also been fiercely supportive. And all those years of being the only woman in the world of men has rendered her soft-spoken but firm of resolve — she is truly a steel magnolia.

Dr Shekhawat, though, was not her only pillar of strength. When the children arrived (Rajendra, now a businessman and Jyoti, a software engineer), Pratibhatai could still pursue her career without the usual pressures of a working mother because her two widowed maasis (mother’s sisters) took over her home and hearth and brought up the children, steering them through school until Shekhawat moved them to Amravati for higher education.

Being fiercely supportive of friends and family, then, is a trait among the Patils. Says her close friend Dr Usha Bhowmik, herself a social worker of yore, “She’s very persistent, diligent and consistent. Once she decides she likes you, she’s fiercely loyal to you. No one can sway her.”

Face to face

Indeed it is Pratibhatai’s fierce loyalty to Mrs Indira Gandhi (she went into huge depression after the assassination) that was recognised by Rajiv Gandhi when he made Pratibhatai the Pradesh Congress chief in Maharashtra when Sharad Pawar became Chief Minister. This was the second time that Pawar and Patil found themselves face to face — in 1978 she had kept the Congress flag flying in Pawar’s face when he split the Congress to form the Progressive Democratic Front and took over as Chief Minister.

Pratibhatai was the leader of the opposition and should logically have ended up as Chief Minister after the Congress returned but this was one male bastion she was unable to storm — then Maratha strongman Vasantdada Patil made sure she got nowhere near and later Sanjay Gandhi opted for A R Antulay.

Pratibhatai’s moment had passed, though she continued in government for a while longer.

But she put her years as a minister in the government to good use — she set up various hostels for working women in Mumbai, Pune and New Delhi. She worked for women’s empowerment through the All India Women’s Conference and other bodies. Her daughter has given up a highly paid job in the UK to return home and now runs a school for children, following in her mother’s footsteps.

First reaction

Pratibhatai, today, is still recovering from the utter surprise of Thursday. “It was most unexpected. I received the call in the afternoon. By evening it was all over the country. But one has to be prepared for everything.’’

And though she had never thought she would cap her glorious career being in the office of the President, she is happy. “It’s a great honour. It means great respect for women. And in the biggest democracy in its 60th year, it means so much for women’s empowerment,’’ she adds.