India chose its first female president Saturday, July 21, in an election hailed as a victory for women in a country where gender discrimination is deep-rooted and widespread. Still, it’s not clear how much 72-year-old Pratibha Patil — a lawyer, congresswoman and former governor of the northern state of Rajasthan — can or will do in the mostly ceremonial post to improve the lives of her countrywomen.

A president really doesn’t play a proactive role in India. The last guy to do that or try to do that was Dr. Rajendra Prasad and Jawahar Lal Nehru told him exactly where to get off, after which we can’t think of a single President who tried to do anything more than smile pretty.

While announcing Pratibha Patil’s candidature, last month, Sonia Gandhi hailed her nomination as a "historic occasion." And according to some, it was a symbol of women’s empowerment in India. But everyone perhaps is not buying that!

Patil’s nomination surprised many, given her lack of national recognition. The reasons why Sonia Gandhi proposed her name as a candidate were: Nehru-Gandhi family cultist ; Left & DMK nixed all other Congress candidates; Gender; Member of the Congress Party. What kind of a "message" is that?

The point wasn’t to send a woman to Rashtrapati Bhawan. The point was to elect the best person for the job - caste, religion and gender no bar. We’ve been doing this for 60 years now. And there was no reason why this decision had to be made in 2 hours - you’ve had all the time in the world to think about this day. The Indian political class has made such an all out fetish of incompetence in governance for so long that it found itself in a position where they couldn’t even get together and choose a figurehead. Even when they had known for years that this day was coming.

Secondly, while India has had several women in positions of power — most notably Sonia Gandhi and her mother-in-law Indira Gandhi, who was elected to the more powerful position of prime minister, women still face rampant discrimination.

Many Indian families regard daughters as a liability due to a tradition requiring a bride’s family to pay the groom’s family a large dowry of cash and gifts. As a consequence, their education is often neglected. If they are widowed, they are considered a burden on their children or families and face even more discrimination. International groups also estimate that some 10 million female fetuses have been aborted in India over the last two decades as families show a widespread preference for sons.

Still, the election of a woman to the post continues an Indian tradition of using the presidency to give a high-profile voice to disadvantaged communities. India has had three Muslim presidents, including Kalam, since winning independence from Britain in 1947. It has also had a president from the minority Sikh community. Kalam’s predecessor, K.R. Narayanan, came from the bottom of the society’s complex social hierarchy. But as the presidential post is merely a ceremonial one in India, real executive powers are vested in the council of ministers, headed by the prime minister. It makes clear that the only ones who will benefit from Pratibha the president would be the UPA government and not the women of India.

On another note, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to compare a woman president with the common women of India. Women in our land have been worshipped as Durga, Saraswati and what not. The bahu’ of the house is called ghar ki Lakshmi’. To an outsider it would seem that the women of India enjoy high status and respect, equalled only by the reverence we reserve for our gods. And they do, but only in name. On one hand, we Indians chant various incantations praising women and on the other, we feel no qualms in suppressing them in more ways than can be counted. The same "ghar ki Lakshmi’ is beaten to pulp if she fails to bring a hefty dowry or bear a boy child.

In the given scenario, is Patil the right person for the job? We don’t know because everybody is so hung up on her gender that we’re lucky to have the barebones of her resume. Patil defeated incumbent Vice President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, the candidate of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, in a race dogged by unprecedented mudslinging. Opponents derided her nomination, saying she lacked the national stature for the job and complaining that her only qualification was unswerving loyalty to the powerful Gandhi family.

Patil’s emergence on the national stage also highlighted several scandals involving family members, including two who are under investigation by police. It appears that Ms Patil hasn’t been completely above board when she disbursed loans to her kin when she was a director of a bank. A paper reports, "Four years ago, when the Reserve Bank of India cancelled the licence of the bank that UPA Presidential nominee Pratibha Patil set up in the name of women empowerment, waiving loans for her relatives wasn’t the only irregularity it detected…."

All said and done we cannot have someone with less than a perfect record as our first citizen. And we just can’t have her simply because Ms Patil says she has a divine premonition about a larger responsibility. Where was her divine premonition when her kin were about to default?

The way the Madam Gandhi has gone about posting her puppets on the top constitutional posts of the country is ridiculous. All we can say is Sonia Gandhi is becoming a better politician. She put up a female candidate for the post who is ready to do anything mam asks. It was Sonia’s master stroke: by nominating Patil, she cut the VP, Bhairon Singh Shekhavat’s legs out from under him, divided the NDA because the Shiv Sainiks can’t vote against the first marathi with a real chance of becoming president.

We can have a women president, but choose a worthy candidate, the one who really deserves it. But, there is no womenhood element although UPA might claim it because where did this feminine cause go 5 years back when Lakshmi Sahgal contested against Kalam?

Women in India, like the president, have a ceremonial high post in society. We fail to see how this was a great moment for women in India. Just don’t call it women’s empowerment. It is a symbolic sham and means very little. Personally, it feels like it’s a far prouder day for sycophants. And anyways, the other candidate was not that great either.



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