The Lost Opportunity of India’s First Woman President
With International Women’s Day around the corner, it may be a good time to compare the first-ever female president of India Pratibha Patil with other women presidents globally to gain perspective on the significance of her election and consequent entry into the exclusive league of extraordinary gentlewomen that have reached similar heights of political leadership.
Her election has been called ‘the murkiest presidential polls in Indian history’ with several corruption allegations cast against her but the 72-year old governor of Rajasthan state still managed to snag the coveted position. One can only surmise that this was possible either because she was a woman, wouldn’t ruffle any feathers or perhaps most regrettably, because there just aren’t better options. In India, our president’s role is mostly ceremonial and has customarily been occupied by a member of a minority group, but nonetheless, the privilege should have gone to someone who was as memorable as her predecessor Abul Kalam Azad.
Since 1940 when Khertek Anchimaa-Toka became the first ever woman president of what’s now the Tyva Republic in Russia, around 50 women have demonstrated strong leadership as presidents of their respective states, and have left behind mostly inspiring legacies. Many were thrust into presidential roles when their husbands or fathers were assassinated but then went on to make their own marks on herstory like Corazon Aquino of the Phillipines or Violet Chamorra of Nicaragua. Pratibha Patil’s election is notable in South Asia from this point of view because she is the first woman leader in the region who doesn’t have a family connection to politics unlike Indira and Sonia Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, Sheikh Hasina, Khaleda Zia, Chandrika Kumaratunga and her mother Sirimavo Bandaranaike.
However, she does keep company with plenty of amazing women who came to power without family connections such as Ellen Sirleaf, the current president of Liberia, an economist who got the massive external debt of her country forgiven. Another shining example is Mary Robinson of Ireland who later became the UN high commissioner for human rights. Perhaps the best role model for Pratibha Patil is Vigdís Finnbogadóttir of Iceland, who also had a ceremonial presidential role, but made such a strong impression as cultural ambassador that she was re-elected three times.
India should aim for the level of transparency exemplified by Elisabeth Kopp of Switzerland, who resigned as head of state when the media reported that she asked her husband to quit the board of a company (later proved innocent) that had links with international crime. I hope Ms. Patil’s assets are being watched closely, as there have certainly been corrupt precedents such as Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the current president of Argentina, whose assets (when combined with her husband’s) have increased by 572% over 6 years.
It is a sad statement on India’s democracy that in this day and age, when women of Indian descent lead some of the world’s top companies like Pepsico and there are more concurrent women heads of state than ever before, that we weren’t able to elect a better qualified professional as our first female president. We must change the perception of politics as dirty and eliminate the barriers women face while entering politics. Another way may well be to support the first and only women's political party in the world, the United Women’s Front, started in 2007 by Suman Krishankant. And we must pressure the Rajya Sabha (upper house) to pass the Women’s Reservation Bill, which would reserve 33% of seats in parliament for women.
This is not only critical for India as we are regarded a 'flawed democracy' but also for the world because India is projected to possess the fourth most capable concentration of power by 2015. We rank 10th in world military expenditure, spending 18.6 % of our budget on defense while only 12.7 % is spent on education and only 3.4 % is spent on health! If we identify younger women with strong leadership potential and mentor them on their path to greatness, we may not have to bestow any more honours on those who are undeserving.