NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India’s first female president was sworn in on Wednesday, after a vitriolic campaign which undermined the symbolism of the appointment and raised doubts about Pratibha Patil’s suitability for the ceremonial role.
The 72-year-old Patil, dressed in a white and green saree draped over her head, took the oath of office inside parliament’s packed and ornate central hall, promising to uphold the constitution and devote herself to the people of India.
She then received a 21-gun salute.
“Today India stands at the threshold of a new era of progress,” she said. “We must make sure that every section of society, particularly the weak and disadvantaged, are equal partners and beneficiaries in the development process.”
But her words may count for little given her lack of power and the manner of her accession to the job.
The governor of Rajasthan, she had been plucked from relative obscurity to become the government’s compromise candidate for the job, after the coalition failed to agree on a host of other, male candidates.
Congress leader Sonia Gandhi, the most powerful politician in the country, then billed the appointment as a historic day for India’s women.
Critics said it was a hollow gesture after a campaign marred by bitter partisan politics and unprecedented mud-slinging.
“Don’t mock our intelligence and call it a victory for women. It is a selfish victory for the Congress party and its leadership,” columnist Suhel Seth wrote in the Asian Age newspaper.
Outgoing President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, considered the father of India’s missile programme, was dubbed the “people’s president” for his unassuming and accessible style.
The pair were escorted to parliament from the presidential palace in a motorcade accompanied by the presidential bodyguard riding on horseback in white uniforms and carrying lances.
Symbolism was heavy as the first woman president was sworn in by the country’s first chief justice from the Dalit community, formerly known as the “untouchables”.
Patil then urged a renewed battle on malnutrition, infant mortality and female foeticide -- in a country where hundreds of thousands of female foetuses are killed every year and nearly half of all young children are malnourished.
But a slew of accusations emerged in the run-up to her election last week and have marred her appointment.
The cooperative bank for women she helped establish was closed down by the central bank in 2003 under the weight of its bad debts, amid accusations of financial irregularities.
The employees union have taken her and others to court alleging that loans that were made to her brother and family members were not repaid. She was also accused of trying to shield her brother in a murder inquiry.
Patil now has immunity from prosecution, but not her family.
“What people will look for ... is whether her office is used to protect them,” columnist Neerja Chowdhury told NDTV news channel. “Clearly there will be microscopic interest in how her family conducts itself.”
Patil has also managed to put her foot in her mouth in the run-up to taking the country’s highest office.
First, she offended many minority Muslims -- and infuriated some historians -- by saying that Indian women first veiled their heads to protect themselves against 16th century Muslim invaders.
She then dismayed modern India by claiming that she had experienced a “divine premonition” that she was destined for higher office from a long dead spiritual guru.
In 1975, as health minister for the state of Maharashtra, she said people with hereditary diseases should be sterilised.
India has had a few 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 and an infinitely more powerful and ultimately more controversial figure than Patil.
Patil will draw a monthly salary of just 50,000 rupees a month ($1,250) but have free unlimited healthcare and enjoy the former British viceroy’s palace, the second biggest residence for a head of state after the Sultan of Brunei, officials said.