Pratibha Patil: Pioneering India’s Presidential Horizon
Pratibha Devisingh Patil, born on December 19, 1934, in the village of Nadgaon in Jalgaon, Maharashtra, India, etched her name in history as the first woman to ascend to the prestigious role of President of India. Her remarkable life journey, from humble beginnings in a Marathi family to the pinnacle of the nation’s leadership, is a testament to her resilience and trailblazing spirit.
Early Life and Education
Pratibha Patil’s educational odyssey commenced at R. R. Vidyalaya in her hometown, followed by academic excellence. She earned a master’s degree in Political Science and Economics from Mooljee Jetha College, Jalgaon. Subsequently, she pursued a Bachelor of Law degree at Government Law College, Bombay, affiliated with the University of Bombay (now the University of Mumbai).
Commencing her legal career at the Jalgaon District Court, she concurrently demonstrated a profound interest in addressing social issues, especially those concerning the well-being and empowerment of Indian women.
In 1965, Pratibha Patil married Devisingh Ramsingh Shekhawat, leading to the birth of two children, a daughter named Jyoti Rathore and a son, Raosaheb Shekhawat, who, like his mother, ventured into politics.
At the tender age of 27, in 1962, Pratibha Patil was elected to the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly, representing the Jalgaon constituency. Her political trajectory soared as she secured four consecutive victories in the Muktainagar constituency between 1967 and 1985.
Expanding her influence to the Rajya Sabha from 1985 to 1990, she became a Member of Parliament, representing the Amravati constituency during the 1991 elections for the 10th Lok Sabha. Her tenure in the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly saw her assume key Cabinet portfolios, and she held significant roles in both the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha. Additionally, she served as the President of the Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee and held positions such as Director of the National Federation of Urban Co-operative Banks and Credit Societies and a Member of the Governing Council of the National Co-operative Union of India.
On November 8, 2004, Pratibha Patil created history by becoming the first woman to hold the position of Governor of Rajasthan.
The Presidential Election and Tenure
Pratibha Patil’s ascent to the highest constitutional office in India began when she was declared the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) candidate on June 14, 2007. Her selection followed political negotiations and debates over the nominee, with her loyalty to the Indian National Congress (INC) and the Nehru–Gandhi family playing a pivotal role in her selection by INC leader Sonia Gandhi. Despite her loyalty, she asserted her intention not to be a mere “rubber-stamp president.”
Serving as President of India from July 25, 2007, to July 25, 2012, her tenure was marked by controversies. Critics deemed it lacklustre due to her perceived lack of charisma and belief in the supernatural. Patil faced criticism for commuting the death sentences of 35 petitioners to life, a record number during her presidency. Her foreign travels, often accompanied by family members, incurred criticism for the associated high expenditures.
After retiring from the presidency, Patil became embroiled in several controversies. Notably, she was accused of using public funds to construct a retirement mansion on military land in Pune, a move unprecedented for a retiring president. Other controversies involved her attempts to claim both an official government car and a fuel allowance for a private car, as well as her retention of gifts given to her in her official capacity.
Beyond politics, Pratibha Patil made significant contributions to education and cooperative businesses. She founded educational institutions like Vidya Bharati Shikshan Prasarak Mandal and Shram Sadhana Trust, focusing on improving the lives of working women. Additionally, she established the cooperative sugar factory Sant Muktabai Sahakari Sakhar Karkhana.
However, controversies surrounded her business interests, notably the failure of Pratibha Mahila Sahakari Bank, a cooperative bank she co-founded. The bank ceased trading in 2003 after the Reserve Bank of India cancelled its license due to illegal loans provided to her relatives.
Legacy and State Honors
Pratibha Patil’s legacy is multifaceted. As the first female President of India, she shattered gender barriers and contributed to the nation’s political history. Simultaneously, her presidency was marked by controversies and challenges.
In recognition of her contributions, Pratibha Patil was honoured with the Order of the Aztec Eagle, Mexico’s highest civilian honour, in 2018.
Pratibha Patil’s journey remains a subject of both admiration and scrutiny, exemplifying the complexities of a political career in a diverse and dynamic nation like India.