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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 on UPA president Sonia Gandhi's desk next to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh

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.


olutosin's picture

Well Captured

You write so well Darling. One can only pray that more capable women join politics in the developing world, so we do away with rubber stamps.

Olutosin Oladosu Adebowale
Founder/Project Coordinator
Star of Hope Transformation Centre
512 Road
F Close
Festac Town


sapnashahani's picture

Thank you!

Yes, politicians have used bureaucracy in the developing world to exploit the poor for far too long... Thank you for your comment, Olutosin :)

Nusrat Ara's picture

I loved it Sapna. I have

I loved it Sapna. I have wondered on this issue so many times, especially when that bank fraud/ business came up. Then there was her son travelling with her abroad, who was then accused of persuing his business interest. A misuse of position. You have put it in words. Thanks. We don't need examples like her, I think it undermines the hardwork of thousands of women across all levels.

Keep writing.



sapnashahani's picture

Thanks Nusrat!

I didn't know about her son traveling with her abroad but it doesn't surprise me. It's become so acceptable for our politicians today to misuse their power like this. I think people have to be woken up and made to speak out together. Then only some change is possible. Hope all is well with you :)

Farona's picture

Sapna ! I've been wondering

Sapna !
I've been wondering who this women is ever since she became the president ! it was nice to hear from a women talking about a women president ;- )

It was really refreshing to know she doesn't come from a family with political ties, which is so often the case in South Asia.

A very positive development.

sapnashahani's picture

Thanks Farona!

Glad you liked the story :) Yes, in a way, it is a positive development. All the best,

eunicev's picture

Lost opportunity for India' women!

I found this so very interesting and compelling. Thank you for writing this- I will follow the progress of women representatives in India and will also follow you and your future writing. Excellent!!

Eunice E. V.

sapnashahani's picture

Thank you Eunice!

Rachael Maddock-Hughes's picture


This is just a brilliant piece Sapna~I agree with you completely that it is better to have someone who is pro-gender policies than a woman who is ineffective and in many ways may give women in politics a bad name. Your article is timely, you address it in a solutions oriented matter, and your voice comes through loud and clear.

Way to go!


"In every human heart there are a few passions that last a lifetime. They're with us from the moment we're born, and nothing can dilute their intensity." Rob Brezny

sapnashahani's picture

Thank you so much Rachael!

I learned a lot from this assignment in particular since I edited half a dozen times and changed my focus after I posted a draft on the correspondents group! Thanks to World Pulse and VOF, I feel like a 'real' writer now :)

tgilligan's picture

Not just ANY woman will do...

Hi, Sapna. You make such an important point here - that the mere fact of having a woman president is not cause for celebration; India needs to have the right woman, and for the right reasons. She needs to be committed to pro-woman policies, and she needs to be an inspiration to other strong female candidates. Thanks for giving me so much to think about.

Tara G.

sapnashahani's picture

Thanks Tara

Yes I think we need to look below the surface more so we can be aware and support the right leaders... Not always an easy task! Thanks for your support :)

Rita Banerji's picture

Most women leaders in India

That unfortunately is true for almost all women political leaders in India. Some like Mamta Banerjee and Mayawati, go out of their way to demean and blame women who've been raped. They've figured it's a country -- of, by and for the men, and that's who they need to keep happy to stay in power. The problem there is no 'women's' vote -- even when there is -- like for water, fuel (cooking) etc. it is so they can take care of their patriarchal families.

Rita Banerji

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