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Rough ride for India’s Pratibha Patil

(AFP) / 1 July 2007

NEW DELHI - A 72-year-old woman aiming to become India’s first female head of state is facing a tough battle in the race for the presidency, with her family under attack over a range of criminal charges.

Pratibha PatilOpposition groups led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have taken aim at Pratibha Patil, the candidate put forward by the Congress-led government to replace Abdul Kalam, who has said he will not seek re-election.

Patil, who was governor of Rajasthan state before entering the presidential fray, will face off with Vice President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, who is contesting the July 19 polls as an independent, with tacit opposition backing.

Political candidates in India — and their families — are expected to have impeccable reputations.

But Patil got a huge dose of bad press after a court in her home state of Maharashtra said last week that it would hear a case linking her husband D.R. Shekhawat to the suicide of a school teacher seven years ago.

Then, one of her brothers was connected to a murder in the same state. And the opposition charged that a bank she headed went under when her relatives defaulted on their loans.

Patil has brushed off the allegations, and has the backing of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh — who described the charges as ”mud-slinging.”

But the media have hit out at her surprise nomination, and analysts say her candidacy could be compromised.

“It’s the first time a presidential candidate has faced such serious charges,” said Kalim Bahadur, head of Central Asian Studies at India’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.

T.N. Ninan, editor of the Business Standard, wrote: “For five long years, she will be a national embarrassment in a way that no president has so far been.

“And if the courts move against her close relatives in ongoing cases, her position will become untenable.”

India’s president plays a non-partisan role in what is largely a ceremonial post but can exercise crucial influence in government formation at state and federal levels, making the selection a hotly fought contest.

Presidents are elected through a secret ballot by an electoral college made up of local and federal lawmakers, and the BJP-led opposition hopes to take away Patil’s votes by lashing out at her credentials.

Analysts say Patil was chosen because of her blind loyalty to India’s charismatic Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, which has given the country three prime ministers. Sonia Gandhi currently heads the ruling Congress party.

Patil came in for even more ridicule last week when she spoke of a “divine premonition of greater responsibility.”

“The future president of India speaks to dead people,” wrote Indian Express columnist Tavleen Singh after news channels reported this week that Patil said she had communicated with a dead guru through a medium.

Singh said it was “very worrying that India’s first citizen should represent the obscurantist and weird underbelly of the Hindu religion.”

Hindu nationalists have published a booklet listing their so-called charges against Patil, saying: “We want the people of the country to know the murky past of Patil who could become president.”

Analysts say with the backing of the government and its allies, Patil should be a shoo-in, but they note that with a secret ballot an upset is a possibility.

“If she’s defeated there will be turmoil in the political establishment, the government would collapse” as it would be seen to have lost the confidence of the legislature, Bahadur said.

“It would force fresh (general) elections in India. The Congress-led coalition has no options left now but to back Patil to the bitter end.”



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