NEW DELHI -- India named its first female president yesterday after weeks of acrimonious campaigning that touched on sensitive issues such as political corruption, partisan gamesmanship and women's rights.
Through ballots cast by federal and state legislators, Pratibha D. Patil comfortably won election to the largely ceremonial post, making this country the world's largest to claim a female head of state. The last woman to serve that function for India was Queen Victoria, during the days of the British Raj.
A lawyer by training, Patil, 72, is a relative unknown on the national stage. Her candidacy seemed to spring from nowhere when it was announced. Critics complained that her most important qualification appeared to be loyalty to the nation's most powerful woman, Sonia Gandhi, the head of the ruling Congress Party. Votes from lawmakers belonging to Congress and its allies guaranteed Patil's commanding victory when the ballots were counted yesterday.
India has had a female prime minister, Indira Gandhi, one of the most powerful leaders this country has seen. But women are still underrepresented in politics, accounting for fewer than 10 percent of the members of the Lok Sabha, or lower house of Parliament. And they continue to face widespread discrimination in the workplace and at home.
Patil outpolled the candidate from the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, the current vice president, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat. She will replace A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, a floppy-haired, gentle-mannered bachelor and eminent scientist whose tenure in Rashtrapati Bhavan, the president's red sandstone mansion in the heart of New Delhi, has been a popular one.
The Indian presidency has generally been considered a post set above the messiness and pettiness of party politics, a unifying moral force in a country often pulled apart by socioeconomic, religious and linguistic differences.
Women rallied around Patil's candidacy as a major advance for their gender, even though some commentators noted that she received the nomination only after Congress Party leaders had first considered several male candidates, settling on her as a compromise.
After her swearing-in on Wednesday, Patil will live in Rashtrapati Bhavan for her five-year term.
Henry Chu writes for the Los Angeles Times.