India: First female President - Pratibha Patil

In July 2007, Pratibha Patil was elected India's first woman president.
Long associated with India's Gandhi dynasty, Mrs Patil was a low-profile governor of the state of Rajasthan before emerging as the favoured presidential candidate of Sonia Gandhi, leader of India's Congress Party.
Her candidacy failed to temper a bitter disagreement over the presidency between Congress, which leads a coalition government, and opposition parties. Although opposing parties traditionally agree to a consensus presidential candidate, Mrs Patil did face an electoral opponent - sitting Vice-President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Correspondents say she will need a deft touch to straddle the often bitter divides of Indian party politics.

Born in 1934 in India's western state of Maharashtra, Mrs Patil has had a long and largely low-key political career. A lawyer by training, she joined Congress in the early 1960s before spending some two decades in Maharashtra's state legislature.

Next she moved into national politics, sitting in both the lower and upper chambers of India's national parliament before leaving the political stage in the late 1990s. Her appointment as governor of Rajasthan in 2004 saw her become the first woman governor in the north-western state. But decades of apparently unswerving loyalty to Congress - and, more specifically, to the Gandhis - assured Mrs Patil of a hostile reception from some quarters on her return to the national stage.

She came in for heavy criticism from opposition figures and in the Indian media after emerging as a candidate for president. Some criticised Mrs Patil's character; others highlighted her time away from high-level politics. The BJP attempted to portray her as unsuitable for the post of president, revealing that police were investigating both her husband and her brother in connection with the (unrelated) deaths of a teacher and a party worker. Media reports focused on some of her public statements, including a 1975 suggestion that people with hereditary diseases should be sterilised.

But the reports were dismissed as "mud-slinging", and as the vote approached Mrs Patil stridently rejected the criticism, insisting all accusations against her were politically-motivated. Instead her supporters suggested Mrs Patil's election would prove to be a landmark for women in a country where millions routinely face violence, discrimination and poverty.

21 July 2007