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India set to elect first woman president amid controversy

India set to elect first woman president amid controversy
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First Published: Thu, Jul 19 2007. 06 03 PM IST
Updated: Thu, Jul 19 2007. 06 03 PM IST
New Delhi: Indian lawmakers voted on 19 July in an election widely expected to give India its first woman president. But the milestone has been marred by more controversy and mudslinging than any recent contest.
Several thousand lawmakers and members of state legislatures had voted in Parliament and state assemblies across India when voting closed at 5.00 p.m. for the contest that will likely see Pratibha Patil named to the largely ceremonial post. The results will be announced 21 July .
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was one of the first to vote, flashing a victory sign to reporters afterward in a show of confidence that bellied the difficult path for the ruling Congress party to ensure victory for its candidate.
While Congress and its allies control a majority of the votes, victory had been in doubt as the coalition partners squabbled over a suitable candidate.
Choosing Patil, 72, the former Rajasthan governor, was supposed to ensure a smooth ride to the Rashtrapati Bhawan, the massive 340-room, colonial era presidential palace.
And the fact that she would be the first woman president in a country where members of the fairer sex are often discriminated against was an added bonus.
But her candidacy has been dogged by unprecedented levels of mudslinging and controversy from the moment her candidacy was agreed upon by coalition members, marring the usually genteel process of presidential elections.
Analysts say Patil, who is largely unknown on the national stage, was selected for her unswerving devotion to Sonia Gandhi, leader of the Congress party and Gandhi’s powerful family, which has historically controlled the party.
“Loyalty seems to have been the major criterion here,” said political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan.
L. K. Advani, a senior leader of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, was more blunt.
She is “a person unfit to occupy the highest constitutional office”, he said.
Congress and Patil have been further embarrassed by a string of revelations about her family.
A court is investigating the involvement of her husband in the suicide of a schoolteacher at a school he ran after he allegedly withheld wages. Her brother is being investigated for allegedly being involved in the killing of a party worker.
She has also faced allegations that a bank she set up to supply women with loans collapsed after her family failed to pay back large sums of money.
Patil has not helped her cause, annoying Muslim leaders by saying Indian women should abandon heads carves.
Despite the scandals surrounding her, women rallied to her support believing that a female figurehead would boost their standing in society.
A pre-election survey of 1,238 women conducted by the Outlook news magazine in mid-June indicated that 68% of women voters felt Patil was the right choice for president. The survey had a three percent margin of error.
“In a democracy like India symbols matter a lot and so her election will have an overall positive impact,” said women’s rights activist Ranjana Kumari.
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First Published: Thu, Jul 19 2007. 06 03 PM IST