Saturday, July 21, 2007

India elects a female president

Pratibha Patil
Mrs Patil's backers say her election will be a boost to women
Pratibha Patil will become India's first woman president after winning a comprehensive election victory, Indian officials say.

Mrs Patil, 72, won nearly two-thirds of votes cast in state assemblies and in India's parliament, they said.

The former governor of the northern Indian state of Rajasthan described her win as "a victory of the people".

Mrs Patil's supporters say her election to the largely ceremonial role will be a boost to millions of Indian women.

"I am grateful to the people of India and the men and women of India and this is a victory for the principles which our Indian people uphold," the Reuters news agency quoted her as saying.

But correspondents say some of her critics have described her as a political lightweight.

Mrs Patil emerged as a surprise, last-minute candidate after left-wing parties in the Congress-led coalition opposed the Congress Party's first choice.

She was backed by Congress leader Sonia Gandhi, but was mocked by opponents and by some sections of India's media.

Balancing role

Mrs Patil has courted controversy, recently telling a Muslim congregation that the veil was introduced to protect their women from Mughal invaders, a comment she later retracted.

She also faced allegations that a bank she helped set up gave out cheap loans to her relatives before it folded up.

The Congress Party has rejected those allegations and was highly critical of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led opposition candidate, Vice-President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, an 83-year-old party veteran.

The presidency is largely a ceremonial post, but plays a key role with a fragmented electorate often throwing up precariously placed coalition governments.

Around 4,500 MPs and state legislators were eligible to vote in the election.

Mrs Patil will succeed A P J Abdul Kalam, a popular missile scientist, as president.