Scandals mar vote for India's first woman President

It was billed as a proud and historic day for Indian women, as lawmakers prepare to vote on Thursday for the country"s first ever female president. But it has turned instead into a major embarrassment for the government.

Scandals mar vote for India's first woman President
It was billed as a proud and historic day for Indian women, as lawmakers prepare to vote on Thursday for the country"s first ever female president. But it has turned instead into a major embarrassment for the government.

Pratibha Patil, the ruling coalition"s 72-year-old nominee for the largely ceremonial post of president, should sail through Thursday"s vote with relative ease against the opposition-backed challenger and current vice-president, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat.

But even before she takes office, Patil has run into rougher waters than she or her supporters could have imagined.

And the scandals, which are now dogging her candidature — and her habit of putting her foot firmly in her mouth — threaten to undermine the very post of president, analysts say.

“There may be nothing in these charges but for the highest office there should not be an iota of doubt,” said political analyst Kuldip Nayar. “The office definitely has been affected.”

Patil, governor of the northwestern desert state of Rajasthan, found herself thrust onto the national stage for the first time when the Congress-led coalition and its communist allies failed to agree on a joint candidate for the job.

Out of nowhere, her name came forward, and who could object to a bit of positive discrimination — especially in favour of a nice, unchallenging grandmother with few obvious enemies?

Congress leader Sonia Gandhi, the most powerful politician in the country, called it a “historic” decision.

Mud-slinging

But as Patil stepped into the limelight, so did her past. And the public scrutiny has become increasingly uncomfortable.

It soon emerged that the cooperative bank for women she helped establish and which carries her name was closed down by the central bank in 2003 under the weight of its bad debts, amid accusations of financial irregularities by its managers.

The employees union has taken Patil and others to court claiming loans, meant for poor women, were instead made to her brother and other relatives and not returned. She was also accused of trying to shield her brother in a murder inquiry.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has dismissed the charges as “mud-slinging” and Congress says she had very little to do with the running of the bank.

“All the allegations against me are motivated and have already been answered,” Patil said in a statement last week.

But she has managed to sling some mud on herself too.

First, she offended many minority Muslims — and infuriated some historians — by saying that Indian women first veiled their heads to protect themselves against 16th century Muslims.

Then she dismayed modern India by claiming that she had experienced a “divine premonition” that she was destined for higher office from a long dead spiritual guru.

It didn"t get any better when critics dug up a comment she was said to have made as Maharashtra"s health minister in 1975, that people with hereditary diseases should be sterilised.

India has had a few female icons in the past — most famously Sonia Gandhi"s mother-in-law Indira, who was one of the world"s first female prime ministers in 1966.

But women still face widespread discrimination in a country where hundreds of thousands of female foetuses are illegally aborted every year.

Television editor Barkha Dutt says the controversy around the accusations against Patil may well be politically motivated, and that it was hard to tell what was true and what was false.

But the way the gender card was played to support an unknown, apparently unthreatening political nonentity — and presented as history in the making — left her distinctly cold.

“As an unapologetic feminist, the prospect of a woman as the president should be a moment of pride and satisfaction,” she said. “Instead I am left feeling utterly cynical and confused.”

Members of parliament and state assemblies vote in Thursday"s secret ballot. The result is due on Saturday.

How India"s presidency works

India holds an election for a new president on Thursday. Here are some key facts about the office.

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The president is elected to a five-year term by an electoral college consisting of members of both the houses of parliament and the state legislative assemblies. The winner of Thursday"s vote will be announced on Saturday.
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The presidency, the titular head of state, is essentially a ceremonial power. Executive power in India is exercised by the prime minister and the cabinet.
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The president does have some discretionary powers in the appointment of the government, especially when no party wins a majority in parliamentary elections. He or she can invite the political alliance most likely to provide a stable government in the case of a hung parliament.
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The president can also send back some parliamentary bills for reconsideration. But the president cannot return the bill if parliament sends it for his assent for a second time.
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Incumbent A P J Abdul Kalam in 2006 returned for reconsideration a bill to prevent the disqualification of members of parliament holding “offices of profit”. He signed it into law after parliament passed the bill again without changes.

Reuters

Güncelleme Tarihi: 19 Temmuz 2007, 15:25
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