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In India, Big Shoes to Fill

Indian President Pratibha Patil.

Indian President Pratibha Patil.

by Vishakha N. Desai

Originally published in The Guardian, July 26, 2007

As Americans debate their readiness to accept a woman such as
Hillary Clinton as president, India has already done so, with the
election of Pratibha Patil. Although India's presidency is primarily a
ceremonial post that carries less weight than that of prime minister
(the position once held by Indira Gandhi), it is symbolically
significant. Sonia Gandhi, the leader of the ruling Congress Party, who
pushed hard to promote Patil's candidacy primarily on gender grounds,
calls this election "a special moment for women across the country."

Moreover, India can claim a great deal of pride in the fact that the
last two presidents were from minority populations—one from the lowest
of castes (Harijan, formerly referred to as "untouchables"), and
another one from the Muslim community.

As a daughter of a woman who fought for women's rights during the
independence movement and was instrumental in starting one of the first
women's institutions in India, I should feel a genuine sense of pride
in the election of Patil. But at best I have mixed emotions.

Both of India's last two presidents had distinguished themselves in
professional careers before being elected—one in the Foreign Service
and the other in nuclear physics—and their reputations were above
reproach. Patil, on the other hand, is a controversial figure, with
questionable qualifications. Most of India's major news outlets
highlighted in their coverage of the story charges of corruption and
ineptitude. One well-respected publication even called Mrs. Patil's
selection "embarrassing."

Women hear over and over that we have to be twice as good as men to
be perceived as successful, deserving leaders. Even if we disregard
some of the accusations against Patil as baseless, it is hard to
imagine a less powerful candidate for the highest ceremonial post in
the largest democracy in the world.

And, just last month, India's ruling Congress party, backed by its
communist allies, nominated for the (largely ceremonial) vice
presidency a former Indian ambassador to Iran publicly sympathetic
toward its nuclear program.

All the same, I applaud Sonia Gandhi for her commitment to
appointing a woman to this important position. In a country full of
contradictory attitudes toward women—ranging from the worship of the
powerful goddess Durga to the killing of innocent young brides—such
gestures can be very powerful.

But gestures cannot be a substitute for real action, or for the hard
work that is necessary to empower all Indian women. Indeed, one could
argue that such symbolic acts may even create a blind euphoria that
obscures the fact that, as a result of less education and lower pay,
young females in India continue to have far fewer resources than their
male counterparts.

While India's president may be only a ceremonial head of state,
during periods of political instability—especially in the current age
of coalition governments—it is the president who makes crucial
decisions about governing parties. Many past presidents have also used
the position to throw their intellectual weight behind such important
issues as education and India's cultural diversity.

So President Patil has large shoes to fill. One can only hope that
she will prove her critics wrong. For those women in India who have
proven themselves to be effective leaders in all segments of society,
it would be wonderful if she can demonstrate early on that she has the
intellectual and professional gravitas that befits the position.

Vishakha N. Desai is President of Asia Society.

In cooperation with Project Syndicate, 2007.