India appears set to get first woman president


New Delhi : India's ruling coalition announced Thursday it was giving the country its first woman president by declaring the candidature of Pratibha Patil, the Rajasthan governor but not a high profile politician, after an adamant Left refused to back Home Minister Shivraj Patil's candidature.

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If elected, the 72-year-old soft-spoken Congress leader from Maharashtra will be the nation's 12th president. All the previous occupants of Rashtrapati Bhavan, the presidential palace, have been men, including incumbent A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who steps down next month after an eventful five-year tenure.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who for days had been at the centre of the intense parleys over picking a nominee of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), made the formal announcement saying it was a "historic moment" for India.

"It is a matter of great pride for the nation that on the historic moment of the 60th anniversary of our independence, we will have a woman president," Gandhi told UPA leaders at 7 Race Course Road, the official residence of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Gandhi said the decision was arrived at "through the process of consultations" involving the multi-party UPA, the Left and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which together command an overwhelming majority in the electoral college that elects the president.

Thursday was a day of hectic political activity in the national capital, with Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi playing the critical mediator's role after flying in from Chennai late Wednesday to bridge what at one seemed were irreconcilable differences between the Congress and the Left.

It was the veteran DMK leader who indicated in the evening that there was consensus on "a woman candidate". In no time, Congress sources made it known that the person was Pratibha Patil, a politician-cum-social activist from Jalgaon in Maharashtra who has held a variety of posts both in the state and elsewhere since taking to politics way back in 1962.

She was six times cabinet minister in Maharashtra, has been member of both the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha, and in 2004 was named the Rajasthan governor, a post she holds now.

It was clear that Pratibha Patil's choice was also related to the fact that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) was going to prop up Vice President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, a veteran politician who has served as chief minister of Rajasthan, for the presidential elections due July 19.

Pratibha Patil, a Rajput, is married to a Maratha, Devisingh Ranisingh Shekhawat.

Once an advocate in Jalgaon, Pratibha Patil is a post-graduate in arts and law, having studied both in the small town and in Mumbai. She was first elected to the Maharashtra assembly in 1962. She remained a member of the house until 1988.

From 1967 to 1972, she was a deputy minister in the Maharashtra government, and then from 1972 to 1978 was a cabinet minister in the state holding several portfolios. She was the opposition leader in the Maharashtra assembly in 1979-80.

For two years from 1986, Pratibha Patil was deputy chairman of the Rajya Sabha. Widely travelled, she was last elected to the Lok Sabha in 1991, in the general election marred by the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.

Besides having been president of the Maharashtra Congress chapter, she is credited with establishing hostels for "working women" in Mumbai and New Delhi, an engineering college at Jalgaon for rural youth, a women's cooperative bank also at Jalgaon, and schools for poor children in Maharashtra.

Pratibha Patil's choice as UPA's presidential candidate took the nation by surprise considering the high profile nature of Shivraj Patil, who lost the race only because of the resistance put up by the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) and its allies.

Although the Left never said publicly that it was opposed to Shivraj Patil, communist sources let it be known that they doubted the secular credentials of the minister who is known to be a devotee of Sathya Sai Baba, a leading godman based in Puttaparthi town in Andhra Pradesh.

Once it was evident that Shivraj Patil would not be able to make it to the presidential palace, the names of Power Minister SushilKumar Shinde and Congress veteran Karan Singh were brandied about. But pro-Left sources hinted that they disapproved of even Karan Singh, the scion of Kashmir's royal family.

The Left remained adamant on blocking names it did not like even after Karunanidhi announced that he would go with anyone the Congress chose as its presidential nominee.

Early Thursday, Karunanidhi held discussions with Left leaders and then met Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi. He again got in touch with the Left, leading to a joint meeting of the Left and UPA where Pratibha Patil's name was picked.

Amid the UPA confusion, the BJP-led NDA was preparing to put up a strong fight, by probably fielding Bhairon Singh Shekhawat. Shekhawat is known to have wide connections among India's political class and could be counted to draw votes even from sections of the UPA, making him a formidable contestant.

"This is the reason we have to ensure the Left support," one Congress leader told IANS.