19th December 1934: Pratibha Patil, first woman president of India, was born

Pratibha Devisingh Patil, the 12th President of India and the first woman to hold the office, was born on December 19, 1934, at Nadgaon village in Maharashtra’s Jalgaon district. After completing her basic education, she secured a Master’s degree in Political Science and Economics from Jalgaon and a law degree from Mumbai.

She practiced law at the Jalgaon District Court. 

She married Devisingh Ransingh Shekhawat on July 7, 1965. Patil was elected to the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly on a Congress ticket in 1962 and consistently won the state elections between 1967 and 1985. She became a Rajya Sabha member in 1985 and was elected to the Lok Sabha in the 1991 general elections from Amravati onstituency.

On November 8, 2004, Patil became the Governor of Rajasthan, the first woman to occupy the post.

Three years later she emerged as a compromise candidate for President and her name was announced by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance on June 14, 2007.  She won the election that was held on July 19. Her challenger was the then Vice President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, backed by the opposition National Democratic Alliance.

According to a BBC profile, Patil “was by no means a unanimous choice for the role”. But her long association with the Gandhi family made the “low-profile governor” of Rajasthan the “favoured presidential candidate of Sonia Gandhi”.

Patil defeated Shekhawat by a margin of over 3 lakh votes, securing nearly 66 per cent of the total votes cast.

The Hindu wrote: “Reflecting the UPA-Left’s national spread…Patil made her presence felt in every State, whereas…Shekhawat drew a blank inWest Bengal, Kerala, Tripura and Mizoram. He secured healthy margins inGujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.”

She was sworn in as President on July 25, 2007.

In an article on the newly-elected President Outlook magazine wrote: “Pratibha Patil not only has to be a ‘people's president’ — she needs to come up to the expectations of the women of this country. For instance, her women critics — ranging from the fashionably vitriolic Shobha De to the volubly feminist Madhu Kishwar — have dismissed her elevation out of hand, saying that her becoming president will not materially change the condition of women in the country.”

When asked about her decision to keep her maiden name after she got married, Patil said: “I had contested elections [in Maharashtra] before I got married — people knew me as Pratibha Patil. So I kept the name. People accepted it — my husband accepted it.”

The Hindu’s N. Ram wrote 17 months into her Presidency:…Pratibha Devisingh Patil…is a quiet-spoken head of state. A lawyer by training, she has brought to her job decades of political, legislative, and administrative experience, inMaharashtra and elsewhere. She clearly believes in playing it by the book. Understanding her role sensitively, she has observed the constitutional restraints to the point of being non-obtrusive, in contrast (in this last respect) to her charismatic predecessor [A.P.J. Abdul Kalam].”  

When her term ended in 2012, opinions were mixed about how she had fared as President. Praveen Swami wrote in The Hindu: “President Patil’s term in office has been remarkably free of the kinds of friction that erupted during the tenures of some past Presidents — controversies that, on occasion, led Rashtrapati Bhavan towards collision with the political executive…President Patil has also quietly used her office to focus attention on the crisis in India's countryside — a crisis that has claimed thousands of lives in Maharashtra, a State that she has decades-old ties of kinship and social engagement with. In her time in office, she has often spoken publicly on the need for change in India's agrarian policies…” On the other hand the journalist Sunetra Choudhury believed that Patil had “lived up to all the criticism that was thrown by her critics”. Choudhury described her as “just another loyalist Congressperson who did exactly what her government asked her to do”.

In her last Republic Day speech as President, Patil told the nation that there seemed to be a tendency in the country to doubt almost everything. “Do we not have faith in our own people’s strengths and in our institutions? Can we afford distrust amongst ourselves?” the President said. “Nations are built through great patience and sacrifices. Concordand not discord is the way forward for a country as large as India . . . Negativity and rejection cannot be the path for a vibrant country that is moving to seek its destiny.”

Also on this day:

1927 — Ashfaqulla Khan, Indian freedom fighter, died  

1935 — Raj Singh Dungarpur, president of Board of Control for Cricket in India, was born 

1969 — Nayan Mongia, Indian cricketer, was born  

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