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The Lost Opportunity of India’s First Woman President

India's current President Pratibha Patil with Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel

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.

Comments

nilima's picture

hi sapna, your words are

hi sapna,
your words are chosen carefully and i am very happy to read about the first female president of your country! It shows how woman can play the vital role if she is empowered or given the opportunity or how she can rise through the one simple life journey to the important journey of having power in a country! I liked your oped.

sapnashahani's picture

Thanks Nilima!

I'm looking forward to meeting you when I visit Nepal this June for the first time :)
Sapna.

nilima's picture

hi sapna, i would love to see

hi sapna,

i would love to see you WOW !!!! :):):)

sapnashahani's picture

Yay!

nilima's picture

:)

:)

nilima's picture

hi sapna, your words are

hi sapna,
your words are chosen carefully and i am very happy to read about the first female president of your country! It shows how woman can play the vital role if she is empowered or given the opportunity or how she can rise through the one simple life journey to the important journey of having power in a country! I liked your oped.

warona's picture

Congradulations Sapnashahani!

Hello over there!

Woman power! mmmm! this is great news sister,to mention names like Ellen Sirleaf.Am so greateful to your piece.Keep singing.The battle is still not over.You are a mighty woman.You have ellaborated to take us somewhere with your great piece about India.India is a great and beautiful country with its wonderful people. Indeed 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.

All my best wishes to you gal.

Warona

"success will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time " And when confronted conquer with love

sapnashahani's picture

Thanks Warona!

I'm so glad I got to research this story and learn about amazing women like Ellen Sirleaf whom I didn't know about before! I hope more strong role models step up to the plate to inspire us all the more :)
Sapna.

HARMONY's picture

"No one shows his village

"No one shows his village with his left hand" is a well-known statement in my country meaning you only say good things about what concerns you or your home town, but here you raise a very sentive subject in a brillant way.
Your questions and concern are deep as we are talking about women empowerment! I admire your sincerity and the way you wraped your Op-Ed!

Trust your HOPES, not your fears... Harmony

sapnashahani's picture

Thanks for sharing Harmony!

I have been conflicted being critical of policies in my own country. But I hope people will see that I do this out of love for my people... The story is the same everywhere, isn't it? Rich and powerful people exploit everyone else. So I think it's important to speak truth to power and let them know you are watching... Also awaken others from your country, and let others from around the world see that there are so many similarities between our governments, often times and we need to work together against wrong everywhere, while we focus on our country a bit more...

Sorry for the mini-rant, I loved the saying you shared :)
Sapna.

HARMONY's picture

You are right sister! A lot

You are right sister!

A lot of things are hapening and we need to be honest and say it!

We need to say it and say it Aloud if we want to see change in our community!

Trust your HOPES, not your fears... Harmony

Insha Allah's picture

incredible India

Hi sister sapnashahani,

I was inspired by your very strong, open, analyzed op-ed. You made your powerful argumentative opinion with several concrete examples and data. I like it so much.
Sure! Your country is very interesting and I love it the country itself and your people. Last November, I had a chance to attend a youth conference organized by Oxfam Australia in New Delhi. At our opening ceremony, we met many amazing high-profile women and listened their powerful speech. In my community visit, I met women who are in extreme poverty in slum communities and heard their sorrowful stories. So, a woman like you can make a real CHANGE for such an incredible country. I found your youths are very smart and I admire the way they perceive on their country.

With Love,
Insha Allah

Shwe Wutt Hmon

sapnashahani's picture

Thanks Insha Allah!

Very kind of you to say that... I would love to visit Burma someday too as I'm sure it's very beautiful! All the best,
Sapna.

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