- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 22, 2007

NEW DELHI — India chose its first female president yesterday 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 and former governor of the northwestern state of Rajasthan — can or will do in the mostly ceremonial post to improve the lives of her countrywomen.

Mrs. 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 Mrs. Patil after Congress and opposition parties failed to agree on a common candidate.

While India has had several women in positions of power — most notably Mrs. 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.

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. 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.

Mrs. 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 Mrs. Patil’s nomination, saying she lacked the national stature for the job. Mrs. 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 their head scarves were roundly denounced by Muslim leaders and by historians — who disputed her assertion that women only started wearing head scarves in India to save themselves from 16th century Muslim invaders.

Mrs. Patil 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.

Mrs. Patil will be sworn in on Wednesday. She replaces the popular A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who has completed 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 Mr. Kalam, since winning independence from Britain in 1947. It has also had a president from the minority Sikh community. Mr. Kalam’s predecessor, K.R. Narayanan, came from the bottom of society’s complex social hierarchy.

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