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The Lost Opportunity of India’s First Woman President

Cartoon by Satish Acharya depicting President Pratibha Patil as a rubber stamp

Her election in 2007 is regarded as the murkiest presidential polls in Indian history with several corruption allegations cast against her. But the 72-year old, unremarkable governor, Pratibha Patil, still managed to win. With International Women’s Day around the corner, there is opportunity to reflect on the implications of her election and to discuss how stronger candidates can be attracted to such positions in the future.

In India, the President’s role is mostly ceremonial and has been customarily bestowed on a member of a politically underrepresented group. Patil’s predecessor Abul Kalam Azad fit the bill since he was Muslim. But he was also well-qualified and engaged many with his vision for India’s future. In contrast, Patil’s demeanor, speeches and actions have been uninspiring. From a distance, Patil’s election may symbolize progress. President Obama even remarked during his recent trip that India is doing well because of its many women leaders. But when you look closer, you realize that her election represents all that is wrong with Indian politics today.

It was widely presumed that Patil was chosen by the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) president Sonia Gandhi because of her loyalty to the dynastic family, and so that she could favour the UPA forming the majority in the case of a hung parliament after the coming elections. Sadly, not only is the outside world unaware about Patil’s background but many Indians are also ignorant or apathetic about this, since there isn’t much one can do without a feasible option to the ruling UPA. The opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is backed by the Hindu nationalist BJP which has fostered a spirit of hatred and communal violence against Muslims and Christians for many years.

Should the women’s movement in India hail Patil’s election as progressive just because she is a woman? Or would they have been better off with a more capable President regardless of gender, who supports crucial pro-women policies? It is pitiful that at a time when there are more concurrent women heads of state in the world than ever before (as many as 25) and Indian women like Indira Nooyi, CEO of Pepsico, run some of the biggest companies in the world, we could not find a more qualified woman President.

C.S. Anuradha of Pondicherry University says South Asian women political leaders have always drawn negative criticism when they have been assertive and judged as unsuitable for leadership when they have been docile. Patil certainly falls in the latter category, which may not bode well for future women leaders. Considering India’s poor record of women’s participation in politics, we needed a shining example of a leader to inspire a growing trend of capable women decision makers. India has not had a female prime minister since Indira Gandhi became India’s first PM 30 years ago and an equally charismatic woman President may have diminished the memories of Indira Gandhi’s authoritarianism.

Interestingly, one of the few ways that Patil’s election has been a positive development is the fact that she is the first female head of state in South Asia without family connections to politics. Now 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. We must change the perception of politics as corrupt and eliminate the barriers women face while entering politics, beginning with disseminating basic information of how to start. Another way may be to support the only women's political party in the world, the United Women’s Front, started by Suman Krishankant in India in 2007. And finally, we must pressure the Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament) to pass the Women’s Reservation Bill, which would reserve 33% of seats in parliament for women, up from nine percent.

This is critical as India is projected to possess the fourth most capable concentration of power by 2015, according to a CIA report. India ranks 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. Since women have different priorities and may choose to invest more in education, health and peace, over the military, one can only hope that more capable women leaders will decide India’s future.

This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 30 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard regions of the world.


Fungai Machirori's picture

I loved it!

Dear Sapna,

This is such an important issue you raise! Yes, let's not just find contentment in having elected women in positions of leadership. Let's aim to get capable women equipped for the tasks ahead!!!

Thank you again.

My only change would be in your intro. There is one sentence that I thought could do with a full stop and a comma. Also I would add the word 'win' in your first sentence to make it clearer. So I would change it as follows:

Her election in 2007 is regarded as the murkiest presidential poll win in Indian history, with several corruption allegations cast against her. But the 72-year old unremarkable governor, Pratibha Patil, still managed to win.

Lemme know if that works...


from today i live out of my imagination
i am more than my yesterday
tomorrow i plant a new seed
nothing that lies behind easy
nothing that is ahead real
my within is all i have today
*Napo Masheane*

sapnashahani's picture


Hi Fungai,
That makes sense, I'll change the sentence the way you suggested - thanks so much for the vote of confidence! :)

mrbeckbeck's picture

Well said!

Love the motivating, call to action in the final two paragraphs! It's an easy read throughout, with a thought-provoking topic for people in India, and around the world.

Let's certainly hope that as you say "women have different priorities and may choose to invest more in education, health and peace, over the military...." And, that men can jump on board with life-affirming priorities in policy making... SOON!

Eagerly awaiting the final draft, and ready to spread the message--

Scott Beck
World Pulse Online Community Volunteer

sapnashahani's picture

Thanks Scott!

I'm so glad to hear the piece works because it took a lot of editing to communicate what I thought was most important in only 700 words. I also found that it's a great exercise to write the way I normally would and then rearrange my thoughts to fit the Op-Ed structure suggested.

Thanks to you, Rachael and the World Pulse team for challenging VOF correspondents to articulate their opinions :)


Emie Zozobrado's picture


Sapna, I take pleasure and pride in quoting this line from your piece ..."one of the few ways that Patil’s election has been a positive development is the fact that she is the first female head of state in South Asia without family connections to politics." The first female - this alone is a super-duper landmark! The first Indian Miss Universe, Susmita Sen, got her crown in my country, and we shared the jubilations of India! Patil's presidency is already a great landmark for us women. By this alone we cannot ask for more. Maybe she falls short of much of our expectations, but one thing is very very clear - she made it to where no one else had been. There will be lessons and gains, no doubt ... and we are moving forward one goal at a time ... all the best ...

Emie Zozobrado

sapnashahani's picture

True but...

Thanks for your comment, Emie. What you said is true, but perhaps you would change your mind if I had spelt out all the allegations against our President. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to because of the 700 word limit of this assignment: She has been accused of shielding her brother on murder charges (his corruption was discovered and he allegedly had the person killed), she opened a bank carrying her name and the bank gave interest-free loans to her relatives after which the Reserve Bank of India (government department that oversees banks) canceled her bank's license, and she also opened a sugar factory which was found to be a drug-trafficking ring! Neither her nor her party explained any of this when she became president... They just said that the Opposition party is bringing all this up to make her look bad. So that leaves plenty of doubt in my mind and the minds of others that all this is true, given the terrible reputation of politicians in our country.

Nonetheless, you are right in that, it is an accomplishment that a woman has now reached the post of President in India, while this hasn't happened in the US yet or so many other countries for that matter...

Emie Zozobrado's picture

That's sad!

Sapna, it's unfortunate that we cannot read the minds of our politicians when we choose them to serve us. Our first woman president confronted a dozen coup's by the very people who installed her to the highest office of the land. But there is a lot that we can do to chart the course of our destiny as a people. Maybe many Indians think the way you do, but thoughts need actions as charges need proofs. I know you know what I mean .... all the best...

Emie Zozobrado

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