When a new president came marching in

By Murali Krishnan, IANS

New Delhi : As she walked in gingerly in a cream-coloured Gadhwal sari pulled lightly over her hair, a striking olive green border to match in what has now come to symbolize her trademark style, a hushed silence descended over parliament's majestic Central Hall.

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Pratibha Patil, 72, was set to make history to become the first woman President of India and in turn break the male dominance over Rashtrapati Bhavan.

The atmosphere inside the hall was upbeat and bubbly as lawmakers, chief ministers, governors and ministers mingled and exchanged pleasantries. Both former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and former Chhattisgarh chief minister Ajit Jogi were wheeled in before taking their seats in the front row.

Patil's rival in the presidential race, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, who was perhaps one of the first few invitees to arrive early, was warmly greeted by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

BJP leader L.K. Advani, who was in the forefront of the campaign against Patil but who promised to attend the ceremony, made an unobtrusive entry and quietly parked himself in the back benches along with his colleague Jaswant Singh.

But it was Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Maywawati, who set the place abuzz walking the entire length of the hall with a kind of purpose to greet everyone, her factotum, Satish Mishra, in tow before settling down in a tête-à-tête with Congress president Sonia Gandhi.

Even Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, using cabinet ministers T.R. Baalu and A. Raja as props to find his way into hall, did not get much notice though he managed to find a prized seat next to Sonia Gandhi.

During the course of Patil's address in English, after the brief oath-taking rite, there were seven rounds of applause, the biggest round of clapping and thumping of benches reserved for the end when she quoted poet Rabindranath Tagore.

Her references to Mahatma Gandhi and Marathi poet-saint Sant Tukaram and her promise to work to alleviate poverty also drew much approbation.

The ceremony over, which lasted precisely 25 minutes, she walked single-file with the silver-haired, missile scientist Abdul Kalam – with whom she exchanged the presidential seat – ahead of her to the presidential band belting out a robust "Mera Bharat Mahaan" (My India is great).

Outside the Central Hall, ministers and MPs lavished praise on Patil, especially remarking on her long journey as a lawyer from a nondescript Jalgaon to the grand Rashtrapathi Bhavan.

"She was just brilliant. She talked of infant mortality, female foeticide and child rights – subjects dear to my heart and which I hope will see greater focus," gushed Women and Child Development Minister Renuka Chaudhary.

"I just wished she would taken a swipe at the BJP and said that she had arrived despite them," exclaimed Minister of State for Commerce Jairam Ramesh.

Pat came the reply from CPI-M MP Sitaram Yechuri: "She made a reference to that when she said that we must fight divisive tendencies such as communalism."

Exactly five years to the date, when Kalam was sworn in, he promised to work for a vision of transforming India into a developed nation, powered by economic strength with a value system. To a large extent, he did and managed to 'ignite minds', thereby earning him the sobriquet of the 'people's president'.

As she now prepares to take on the job as India's president, Patil knows she has a tough act to follow. She admitted so herself in the address of the "great responsibility that had been placed on my humble shoulders".

Now, a nation keenly awaits how this rank outsider in every sense plays outs her role.