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India elects first woman president

  • Story Highlights
  • India elects first female president, official results show Saturday
  • Pratibha Patil's supporters are calling victory a boost for women's rights
  • Bitter election campaign was marked by scandal
  • 72-year-old Patil was the ruling coalition's nominee for mainly ceremonial post
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NEW DELHI, India (Reuters) -- India has elected its first female president, official results show, in what supporters are calling a boost for the rights of millions of downtrodden women, despite a bitter campaign marked by scandal.

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Pratibha Patil, 72, is India's first elected female president.

Pratibha Patil, the ruling coalition's 72-year-old nominee for the mainly ceremonial post, easily beat opposition-backed challenger and vice president, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, in a vote by the national parliament and state politicians.

"This a victory of the people," Patil told reporters after official results were announced Saturday. "I am grateful to the people of India and the men and women of India and this is a victory for the principles which our Indian people uphold."

Patil won about two thirds of the electoral college votes. There had never been any doubt she would win, given support from the ruling coalition.

The governor of the northwestern desert state of Rajasthan, she emerged on the national stage when the Congress-led coalition and its communist allies failed to agree on a joint candidate.

"This is a very special moment for us women, and men of course, in our country because for the first time we have a woman being elected president of India," Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi, India's most powerful politician, said.

Supporters hoped Patil's candidacy would help bring issues that plague women in India, like dowry-related violence, into the public spotlight. A woman is murdered, raped or abused every three minutes on average in India.

Her presidency also reflects the growing power of some women in India, where an increasing number are taking part in the workforce and in schools and hold senior positions in corporations.

After the results, Patil supporters took to the streets, singing and dancing as others lit fire crackers and beat large brass drums.

India has had a number of female icons in the past -- most famously Sonia Gandhi's mother-in-law, Indira, who was one of the world's first female prime ministers in 1966.

But hope Patil's presidency would spark only positive talk about women's influence in India evaporated when it emerged the bank for women she helped established was closed in 2003 because of bad debts and amid accusations of financial irregularities.

The employees' union has taken Patil and others to court, claiming loans meant for poor women were instead given to her brother and other relatives and not returned. She was also accused of trying to shield her brother in a murder inquiry.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has dismissed accusations against her as "mud-slinging", said on Saturday her victory was "a vote against the politics of divisiveness".

"All the allegations against me are motivated and have already been answered," Patil said in a statement last week.

Her campaign was marked by other mishaps as well.

She managed to offend many minority Muslims, and anger some historians, by saying Indian women first veiled their heads as protection against 16th century Muslim invaders.

Then she dismayed modern India by claiming she had experienced a "divine premonition" that she was destined for higher office from a long dead spiritual guru.

Critics also dug up a comment she was said to have made as Maharashtra's health minister in 1975, saying people with hereditary diseases should be sterilized. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

Copyright 2007 Reuters. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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