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GLOBAL NEWS | spring 2008

Who Is Pratibha Patil?
India's first woman president is an enigma

By Sathya Saran

OPINIONS ARE SHARPLY divided over whether the election of Pratibha Patil as president of India should be hailed as a giant step for womankind, or whether she is just a political pawn in a clever game played by Sonia Gandhi, head of the country’s Congress Party. Whether the press lambastes Patil for alleged dramatic sins—including abetting a murder and misappropriating funds—or hails her elevation as a feminist triumph, almost everyone is waiting for India’s first woman president to show what she’s made of.

Her record is one of social reform: setting up educational institutions, cooperatives and training schools for the visually challenged. The marginalized poor, tribals and rural citizens have been her past focus. She scored enough points with the populace to ensure she never lost an election since entering politics in 1962, at age 27.

She also enjoyed powerful mentors, including senior Congress Party leaders from her home state, Maharashtra, and served in their shadows in various ministerial capacities. But she accomplished nothing as a minister that was pathbreaking, or even helpful, to women. As opposition leader in the state’s legislative assembly, and later deputy chair of Parliament’s Rajya Sabha (upper house), Patil conducted herself well. But in getting elected to the Lok Sabha (lower house), she merely served to add to her party’s numbers before being called to take the post of governor of Rajasthan.

Hers might have been a career with neither blemish nor brilliance, except for the barbs she provoked by her freewheeling statements. These included a suggestion, when she was health minister of Maharashtra, that people with hereditary diseases should be compulsorily sterilized. Patil also angered Muslim leaders by suggesting the purdah system should be abandoned, since fear of Mughal invaders abducting women was now history. Her refusal to sign over a bill to prevent conversions of Hindus to Christianity also heightened the impression that she was out of her depth as governor of Rajasthan, now that the umbrella of her mentors couldn’t shield her. She never made a decision, although the bill was twice presented to her.

Recently, in a televised speech, Patil lauded the giant steps Indian women had made, especially the 1.2 million women in governance at rural and grassroots levels. Unfortunately, she proposed no special support for them, and no manifesto for further change.

So the verdict is still out. She could do much to encourage India’s women—by throwing her weight behind adult and child education, equal rights, safety in the home and so many other issues. Otherwise, her presidency will be one more token salute to womankind, and she will be one more woman who entered politics to remain but a pawn in the game still owned in India by men.