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India

Woman Candidate Favored in Upcoming Election

M.G. Srinath, New Delhi, India, July 12, 2007

Indian presidential candidate Pratibha Patil during a meeting in New Delhi on June 27. (Photo: Prakash Singh / AFP-Getty Images)

It is said that the preliminaries in the U.S. presidential elections are more nerve-wracking for the candidates, with all of its muckraking, than actually winning the nomination to represent the Republican or Democrat Party for the right to occupy the most powerful office in the world.

In contrast, the Indian presidential election process over the years has been one of decorum and goodwill to choose the best person for the post, which is akin to the British monarchy in that it involves more 'pomp and pageantry' and less power.

But all that has changed as India gets ready to elect its 13th president. For the first time, accusations are flying against the two principal candidates in the fray, including charges of fraud, cheating and skullduggery.

One of the two main contenders for the mostly ceremonial post is Pratibha Patil, the candidate of the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA), who is all set to become the first woman to serve as president after succeeding the incumbent Abdul Kalam later this month.

Opposing her is the present vice-president, Bairon Singh Shekhawat. Balloting for the post will be held on July 19 and the results declared two days later. The new president of the world's largest democracy will then be sworn in for a five-year term on July 25.

Despite all the dirt being heaved on her, including alleged attempts to dupe depositors in a cooperative bank in her home state of Maharashtra, spooky tales of talking to a dead mystic, and the discussion of her views on controversial topics such as why Moslem women should discard their veils and why people with hereditary diseases should be compulsorily sterilized, Patil is set to break the glass ceiling to become the First Citizen of the country, just when India is on the threshold of celebrating its 60th year of independence from the British colonial rule.

She has denied all charges against her by saying that they are "false, malicious and baseless."

A lawyer by training, Patil was the governor of the northwestern state of Rajasthan when UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi sprang a surprise on the nation by choosing her. Patil was twice a member of the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament, and is a seven-time minister in Maharashtra state on behalf of the Congress Party.

She is considered a political lightweight who never held a federal cabinet post and is not well known outside her constituency.

On the other hand, Shekhawat is a formidable opponent. He is one of the top leaders of the Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and served three times as the chief minister of Rajasthan state before becoming the vice-president of the nation in 2002.

However, he is running as an independent candidate to smother his links with the BJP and also with the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in a bid to win more secular votes.

Shekhawat has friends and supporters spread across all parties. When he contested and won the vice-presidential poll in 2002 against Congress candidate Sushil Kumar Shinde he garnered 37 extra votes from the opposition ranks, to the surprise of the Congress.

But this time it promises to be tough for Shekhawat as the Congress has the support of the Left and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the regional party that champions the rights of Dalits, the socially and economically backward classes.

Unlike in the United States, the Indian president is not elected through any participation of its citizens, but by an electoral college that consists only of members of parliament and state legislators.

Although the country's constitution allows two successive terms for a president, this has happened only once so far. The unique privilege of holding office twice goes to the country's first president Rajendra Prasad (1952 and 1957).

There have been many distinguished persons such as S. Radhakrishnan, Zakir Husain and K.R. Narayanan who held the office only for one term.

Kalam, a missile scientist of note before being elected as the 12th president in 2002, could clearly be labeled as the "People's President" for his interaction with the citizens across India and for throwing open the hallowed 300-room Rashtrapathi Bhavan (Presidential Mansion) to people, especially children.

Probably, he is the most well-traveled president in India so far, having visited the far-flung corners of the country many times. His popularity ratings are still over 55 percent among the citizenry, while both Shekawat and Patil are in single digits.

In keeping with his scientific disposition, Kalam has flown in a fighter jet, taken a ride in a submarine and visited Siachen Glacier in the Himalayas, the world's highest battlefield where Indian and Pakistani soldiers are holding positions in the icy desert.

Sonia zeroed in on Patil after the Communists, who lend outside support to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's coalition government, rejected the candidature of Home Minister Shivraj Patil and many others as being "unsuitable."

The Left supported Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee, but the Congress said "no" as Mukherjee is the most senior minister in Singh's cabinet and is its main liaison person with allies.

After Patil's candidature was announced, the newly formed United National Progressive Alliance (UNPA), which avowedly seeks to keep both the UPA and the NDA at a safe distance, tried to prop up Kalam's name for the second term.

Kalam said he would consider that possibility if there was "certainty" about it, meaning that all the parties would support him. Three senior ministers in Singh's cabinet took umbrage to that declaration and asked him to stand down.

The UPA's explanation for refusing a second term to Kalam is that he is not a politician and might not be able to handle situations in the coming years when Indian politics are forecast to undergo a churning process, with the regional parties calling the shots at the cost of the two main groups, the Congress and the BJP.

It is widely expected that the 2009 national elections will once again produce a fractured mandate and that a "loyal person" in the Rashtrapathi Bhavan (presidential house) could swing the stakes in forming the new government.

After Kalam rejected UNPA's offer saying: "Enough is enough," and didn't want to become a party to the political process, nor desiring for the Rashtrapathi Bhavan to get "denigrated" after it had become a people's bhavan during his tenure.

The UNPA has also rejected NDA's appeal to support Shekawat as it does want to antagonize Moslem voters with the national elections less than two years away. Moslems form nearly 14 percent of India's population of over one billion people.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called the charges against Patil as "mudslinging," stating that "she has not done anything wrong" in the closure of the bank. He said it had to be closed down along with 71 other cooperative banks in the area because of environmental reasons.

BJP leader and former deputy prime minister Lal Krishna Advani has asked the UPA to reconsider its decision to name Patil to the post, positing: "Never in the past six decades has a candidate for the election to the highest constitutional office faced such grave allegations."

Through it all, the road to the Rashtrapathi Bhavan for Patil to become the first woman to occupy the highest post in the country on July 25 is almost clear, despite all the attempts to derail it.

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