India set to elect first female president

India is expected to elect its first female president today in a poll marred by controversy and mudslinging.

Pratibha Patil, governor of the northwestern state of Rajasthan, is the candidate of the ruling Congress party and its allies, but her nomination has surprised many political observers because she lacks national stature and has been dogged by embarrassing scandals.

Analysts say Patil’s main qualification for the presidency is her unswerving devotion to Sonia Gandhi, leader of the Congress party, and Gandhi’s powerful family, which has historically controlled the party.

“Loyalty seems to have been the major criterion here,” said political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan.

Patil, aged 72, is pitted against Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, aged 84, the candidate of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party and the serving vice president.

But the election is a mere formality.

The president is elected by lawmakers in the Indian parliament and members of state legislatures. The Congress party and its allies have enough lawmakers and state legislators to get their candidate elected.

The position of the Indian president is largely ceremonial, but is vested with powers that can be significant in times of political crisis. The president is also the supreme commander of the armed forces.

Patil’s election campaign has seen an unprecedented level of personal attacks.

She was called “a person unfit to occupy the highest constitutional office” by L. K. Advani, a senior leader of the BJP, in a statement addressed to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Her critics pounced after a court in Maharashtra state decided to hear a case linking her husband, Devisinh Shekhawat, to the suicide of a schoolteacher seven years ago, and after her brother was linked to a murder.

The opposition, led by the Hindu-nationalist BJP, also alleged a bank she set up went under when her family members defaulted on huge loans.

The Congress party reacted by questioning her opponent Shekhawat’s patriotism, claiming he had been part of the British-run police force in 1942 when India’s freedom struggle was at its peak, The Times of India reported recently.

Patil’s own words have also come back to haunt her. She upset Islamic leaders by asking Muslim women to abandon their head scarves, saying women started wearing them in India to save themselves from 16th century Muslim invaders.

Historians disagreed with Patil. They said women wearing scarves in the presence of outsiders was already widespread in India in the 13th century.

India’s independent Election Commission will count the presidential votes on July 21.


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