Pratibha Devisingh Patil, 72, former Governor of Rajasthan and senior Congress leader, became the first woman President of the Republic of India, and was yet the first controversial figure in the history of Presidential elections in the country. Born on December 19, 1934, to Narayan Paglu Rao in Nadgaon, Maharashtra, Pratibha Kumari Patil did her schooling at RR School, Jalgaon. After having completed her MA from Mooljee Jaitha College, she received a law degree from the Government Law College, Mumbai.
At the age of 27, when she was crowned ‘College Queen’ at Mooljee College in 1962, she won an Assembly election from Edlabad on the Indian National Congress ticket and remained a Nehru-Gandhi loyalist since she made her debut in politics. She became deputy minister for education after her re-election in 1967 from the same constituency. In her next term, 1972-78, she was a minister and holding portfolios like tourism, social welfare, and housing. In 1978, she became Leader of Opposition when Congress (Urs) came to power. She was the frontrunner for the CM’s post in 1980 when the Congress (I) came back to power, however the post went to Sanjay Gandhi’s confidant A.R. Antulay, who was soon forced to resign on corruption charges. She served as a minister once again after Antulay had resigned.
In 1985-90, she was elected member of Rajya Sabha and served as Deputy Chairperson from 1986 to 1988. In 1988, Rajiv Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India, chose her as the Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee (I) President. In 1991, Patil contested the 10th Lok Sabha election and was elected from Amravati, where her family is based. She completed her Lok Sabha term in 1996 and did not contest again. In 2004, she became the 24th Governor of Rajasthan and also the first female Governor of the State.
Pratibha has been involved and taken active part, with her husband, Devisingh Ransingh Shekhawat, former Mayor of Amravati and educator, in setting up the Vidya Bharati Shikshan Prasarak Mandal, which runs a chain of schools and colleges in Jalgaon and Mumbai. She also set up the Shram Sadhana Trust that runs hostels for working women in New Delhi, Mumbai and Pune and an engineering college for rural youth in Jalgaon. She has also helped run a school for children of the Vimukta Jamatis and Nomadic Tribes.
Pratibha also founded and was the chairperson of a cooperative sugar factory known as Sant Muktabai Sahakari Sakhar Karkhana and a cooperative bank named after herself as Pratibha Mahila Sahakari Bank.
A once table tennis champion in her college life, she has also never lost an election in her 45 years of political career. She joined politics under the mentorship of senior Congress leader and ex-Chief Minister Yashwantrao Chavan. It is also said that Pratibha managed Indira Gandhi’s kitchen at the time when Sanjay Gandhi died. In 1977, she was arrested for protesting against the arrest of Indira Gandhi and spent 10 days in jail.
Over the last few weeks, her candidature for the Presidential election had become the most controversial and talked of issue in the country. Advocate Manohar Lal Sharma had filed a Public Interest Litigation before the Supreme Court of India alleging that Mrs Patil and her family members had not cleared a debt to the public exchequer and others and sought the cancellation of her nomination papers. The apex court however observed that it could not act on mere allegations, and rejected the petition at the admission stage itself. The same advocate again moved the Election Commission of India seeking her disqualification. That was also rejected by saying that it had to be decided by the competent insolvency court under the provision of the Provincial Insolvency Act 1920, and not by the Commission.
A Delhi-based NGO also filed a petition before the Delhi High Court alleging that Patil being Managing Trustee of Mumbai-based Shram Sadhana Bombay Trust, which is under the control of state government, was holding the office of profit making her ineligible to contest the President’s election. The High Court deferred the hearing until after the election.
Mrs Patil was also under the cloud of various other allegations. A day before her filing of nomination papers, Rajana Patil, the widow of the murdered Congressman from Jalgaon, in a press conference in Delhi, alleged that Pratibha used her influence for protecting her brother G.N. Patil from being inquiry in the murder of her husband. Not only this, she was accused of financial irregularities in a bank, which she had founded in her name – Pratibha Mahila Sahakari Bank (Pratibha Women Cooperative Bank) and the licence of the bank was revoked by Reserve Bank of India.
She was accused of having failed to repay of Rs 17.5 crore loan she had taken for her Sant Muktabai Cooperative Sugar Factory in 1994. She was the founder member of the factory. Pratibha was also accused of diverting Rs 36 lakh to a trust from her MPLADs fund that her husband Devising Shekhawat runs, which many felt that was in total violation of the Government rules.
She had to face a fierce counter reaction when she made a remark in a function in Rajasthan that Muslim women in India should reject their Purdah system. She said that the veil system was introduced to protect Indian women from the Mughal invaders. She said we are citizens of free India. There is need to put a stop to such practices. That alone will ensure real respect for women. When women are progressing in every field, it is our duty to discontinue such practices, said Patil. The remark stirred controversy across the country. Many historians and Muslim clerics in particular felt that the system of Purdah was used even before the Mughals came to India. Muslim leaders held the statement only underscored the narrow view of history that is propagated by the Sangh Parivar.
In the election, Patil got a thumping hand of 65.82 per cent of valid votes in comparison to 34.18 per cent polled for Shekhawat, who becomes the only sitting Vice President to have lost a presidential election. Immediately after the results were announced, Returning Officer PDT Achary handed over to Patil the certificate declaring her elected as President. The BJP-led NDA backed Presidential candidate and Vice President Shekhawat resigned immediately after the result was declared by saying that he was accepting his defeat with “all humility”.
The election of Patil, the first woman President of India, many feel, is a major step forward for the million of Indian women and girls, who have faced a bitter discrimination in everyday life. Many, however, observe that she has to face a difficult time and there is a tough road ahead. There are still 45 lives, condemned to gallows by the Supreme Court, including Mohd Afzal – the man whose plea became politically sensitive after the BJP insisted it be turn down – waiting for her mercy.
Although she has said that she will not become a rubber stamp President, one is yet to see it. And millions are looking forward to our Madam President.