New Delhi: India is set to elect its first female president on Thursday in an election that has seen more controversy and mudslinging than any recent contests.
Pratibha Patil, former governor of the western state of Rajasthan, is the candidate of the ruling Congress party and its Left allies, but her nomination has surprised many political observers because she lacks national stature and has been dogged by embarrassing scandals. Analysts say Patil’s main qualification for the presidency is 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.
Patil, 72, is pitted against Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, 84, the candidate of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the serving vice-president. But the election is a mere formality. The electoral college for President consists of elected members of both houses of Parliament and elected members of state legislative assemblies. The Congress party and its allies have enough lawmakers and state legislators to get their candidate elected. The position of the President is largely ceremonial, but it’s vested with powers that can be significant in times of political crisis. The President is also the supreme commander of the armed forces.
Patil’s election campaign has seen an unprecedented level of personal attacks. She was called “a person unfit to occupy the highest constitutional office” by L.K. Advani, a senior leader of the BJP, in a statement addressed to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Her critics pounced after a court in Maharashtra decided to hear a case linking her husband to the suicide of a schoolteacher seven years ago, and after her brother was linked to a murder. The opposition, led by the BJP, also alleged a bank she set up went under when her family members defaulted on huge loans.
The Congress party reacted by questioning her opponent Shekhawat’s patriotism, claiming he had been part of the British-run police force in 1942.