India's First Female President: Big Step for Women?

By N. Gunasekaran

A woman becoming the First Citizen of India is an historic moment for Indians. Mrs. Pratibha Patil, the presidential nominee of ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and the Left assumes the office in July as the first woman president of India.

In the elections, she has to take on the independent candidate, the present Vice-President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, supported by the opposition. Since the number of votes in the Electoral College is clearly in favor of Pratibha Patil, her victory is a certainty.

Referring to the presidential race in India, Hillary Clinton said, "I know how difficult the job of President is … I understand it's likely that India will have a woman President...." But India's Rashtrapati Bhavan (President House) is different from Washington's White House. Indian presidency is largely a ceremonial post. The Constitution of India awards some minor discretionary powers to the president. Article 74 of the Constitution directs the president to act in accordance with the advice by the Council of Ministers. Mr. R. Venkataraman, former president of India, compared the office of the president to an emergency light that would come on automatically when a crisis develops and goes off automatically after the crisis is over.

Critics say, as a loyalist of Sonia Gandhi, ruling Congress Party president and the UPA's chairperson, Pratibha Patil would act as a "rubber stamp." Truly, this time, high political interest was shown in the selection of the candidate. The reason is the changing contours of Indian politics. From the early 1990s, India's politics firmly entered into the era of fractured mandates, multi-party rule and coalition politics. So, the president's role assumed significance on the formation of a government.

Initially, the present President Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam decided not to contest if he was not a consensus candidate. Later, when the eight parties' alliance, called Third Front, expressed their support for him, he said he was ready to contest if his victory was guaranteed! But, the venture to seek support for him was unsuccessful and Kalam didn't enter the race

The debate on the presidential candidate was excited and many non-essential issues were raised. Only the Left tried to bring the debate to a higher level. Their voice is crucial since the UPA government's survival depends upon the outside support of the Left. They demanded that the new president should fulfill three criteria.

Firstly, the person occupying the post of president must have a political background. With this criterion, the Left ruled out the name of Dr. Abdul Kalam. As a scientist, he made significant contribution to Indian satellite, launch vehicles and indigenous missile programs. The urban elites conducted a campaign for his reelection. But, his lack of political experience raises the question whether he had enough political sensitivity to deal with any serious political crisis.

The second criterion of the Left was that the presidential candidate must have firm secular credentials. The Left emphasized this criterion because of the powerful existence of religious fundamentalism in the Indian polity. Mr. Shekhawat, supported by the opposition, has been a lifelong adherent of the Hindu fundamentalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and a leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).The memory of the Gujarat carnage is not erased in the minds of the Indian people and the BJP was ousted from power mainly due to its anti-minority Hindutva ideology. So, Mr. Shekhawat could not be an ideal choice.

Third criterion was that the presidential candidate must be capable of judging "the balance between Parliament, Executive and the Judiciary." The UPA and the Left are hopeful that Pratibha Patil's candidacy satisfies all these criteria. The 72-year-old Pratibha Patil had been a lawyer, a member of the state legislature, a minister several times in the state government and a member of Indian Parliament.

Pratibha Patil described her candidature as "a big step for women." In the past also, there were powerful women in Indian politics. Indira Gandhi's role, as Prime Minister for more than a decade, was never forgetful. Now, Congress President Sonia Gandhi has tremendous power in government and in politics. Mayawati, a woman leader from the oppressed caste, achieved a remarkable electoral victory in the recent Uttar Pradesh elections and became the Chief Minister of the state But what about the real uplift of common woman?

The number of women dropped to 933 for every 1,000 men in 2001, making India's sex ratio one of the world's lowest. This is mainly due to infanticide and sex selective abortions. India's adult female literacy rate is 47.8%, while that of male is 73.4%. Women live in acute poverty with their average annual income was less than $1,500. Dowry-related violence, domestic abuse, rape, sexual harassment are frequent. The legislation for 33% reservation for women in the Parliament and State Legislatures is still not yet realized.

Electing a woman president is a symbolic gesture. The follow-up efforts to achieve a real power sharing with the millions of marginalized women are more important.

N. Gunasekaran is a political activist and writer based in Chennai, India.

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2007

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