Image: Pratibha Patil
Prakash Singh  /  AFP - Getty Images
Newly elected Indian President Pratibha Patil stands outside her home in New Delhi, India on Saturday after learning of her victory.
updated 7/21/2007 11:11:30 AM ET 2007-07-21T15:11:30

India elected Pratibha Patil as the country’s first female president Saturday in a vote seen as a victory for the hundreds of millions of Indian women who contend with widespread discrimination.

Patil received 65.82 percent of the votes cast by national lawmakers and state legislators, said Election Commission head P.D.T. Achary. She had been widely expected to win.

Patil, the 72-year-old candidate of the governing Congress party and its political allies, defeated incumbent Vice President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, the candidate of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party.

“I am grateful to the people of India, to all the men and women of India,” Patil said in a brief statement to reporters. “This is a victory of the principles of which our Indian people uphold,” she said flashing the victory sign to her supporters.

Her candidacy was dogged by unprecedented mudslinging from the moment it was agreed upon by coalition members, marring the usually genteel process of presidential elections.

Hundreds of delighted Congress supporters danced in the streets as the results were announced, banging drums and setting off firecrackers outside her home in New Delhi and in her hometown in the state of Maharashtra.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi — the head of the Congress party — were among the first to visit her home to congratulate her. She will be sworn in for a five-year term as India’s 13th president on July 25.

The election of a woman to the largely ceremonial post continues an Indian tradition using the presidency to bolster disadvantaged communities.

Hindu-majority India has had three Muslim presidents, including incumbent A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, since winning independence from Britain in 1947. It has also had a president from the minority Sikh community, and Kalam’s predecessor, K. R. Narayanan, came from the bottom of the society’s complex social hierarchy.

Other Indian women in power positions
While India has had several women in positions of power — most notably Indira Gandhi, who was elected to the more powerful position of prime minister in 1966, and her daughter-in-law, Sonia Gandhi— many women still face rampant discrimination.

Many Indian families regard daughters as a liability due to a tradition requiring a bride’s family to pay a groom’s family a large dowry of cash and gifts. As a consequence their education is often neglected, and many don’t get adequate medical treatment when ill.

International groups estimate that some 10 million female fetuses have been aborted in the country over the last two decades.

It was not clear how much impact Patil will have as president.

Opponents derided her nomination, saying she lacked the national stature for the job and her only qualification was her unswerving loyalty to the powerful Gandhi family.

Her emergence onto the national stage also highlighted several scandals involving family members, two of who are under investigation by police.

And her comments ahead of the election calling on Indian women to abandon wearing headscarves was roundly denounced by Muslim leaders and by historians — who disputed her assertion that women only started wearing them in India to save themselves from 16th century Muslim invaders.

The nomination of Patil also surprised many, given her lack of national recognition despite more than four decades in politics.

Patil was a lawyer before she joined politics and became a member of the state legislature in 1962. She was appointed a minister several times in the Maharashtra state government between 1962 and 1985. In the following decade, she served as a member of Indian Parliament.

Her most recent post was as governor of the northern state of Rajasthan.

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