As Americans debate their readiness to accept a woman such as Hillary Clinton as president, India has already done so, with the election of Pratibha Patil. Although India’s presidency is primarily a ceremonial post that carries less weight than that of prime minister (the position once held by Indira Gandhi), it is symbolically significant. Sonia Gandhi, the leader of the ruling Congress Party, who pushed hard to promote Patil’s candidacy primarily on gender grounds, calls this election “a special moment for women across the country.”
Moreover, India can claim a great deal of pride in the fact that the last two presidents were from minority populations – one from the lowest of castes (Harijan, formerly referred to as “untouchables”), and another one from the Muslim community.
As a daughter of a woman who fought for women’s rights during the independence movement and was instrumental in starting one of the first women’s institutions in India, I should feel a genuine sense of pride in the election of Patil. But at best I have mixed emotions.
Both of India’s last two presidents had distinguished themselves in professional careers before being elected – one in the Foreign Service and the other in nuclear physics – and their reputations were above reproach. Patil, on the other hand, is a controversial figure, with questionable qualifications. Most of India’s major news outlets highlighted in their coverage of the story charges of corruption and ineptitude. One well-respected publication even called Mrs. Patil’s selection “embarrassing.”