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.