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Front-Runner for Indian Presidency Becomes Focus of Controversy

Indian lawmakers have begun voting to choose the country's next president, and Pratibha Patil is widely expected to become the first woman to hold the post. The position is largely ceremonial, but as Anjana Pasricha reports from New Delhi, the campaign has provoked unprecedented controversy.

As several thousand lawmakers of the federal parliament and state legislatures cast their votes to choose the country's 13th president, there were few doubts about who would emerge the winner.

Seventy-two-year-old Pratibha Patil, the nominee of the ruling Congress party and its allies, is expected to defeat Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, who is backed by the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party.

The Congress Party has described its choice of Patil as a push for gender equality in a country where a woman has not previously served as head of state - although another woman, the late Indira Gandhi, has held the more powerful post of prime minister. Patil was pulled from relative political obscurity after Congress's allies rejected other candidates.

But her candidacy soon ran into rough weather as opponents unearthed a series of embarrassing allegations. The most serious one is that a cooperative bank she helped establish folded when her relatives defaulted on huge loans. She has also been accused do trying to shield her brother in a murder investigation.

Patil denies all the accusations, and says they are politically motivated. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called the attacks "mudslinging."

Independent political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan says Patil appears to have been chosen mainly for her loyalty to the Congress Party, and he calls both presidential candidates "uninspiring."

"Most Indian presidents in the past have been men of letters, or they have been people who have held very high pubic offices at a federal level, there have been a couple who have come in from the world of specialized knowledge ... In that sense, this is not a field where the players are of that kind of stature," said Rangarajan.

It is not only Patil's past that is haunting her. She has made some controversial statements since she was nominated for the presidency.

She offended Muslims by saying that Indian women first wore the veil to protect themselves against Muslim invaders. Others were put off by her assertion that she experienced a "divine premonition" that she was destined for higher office.

Patil's candidacy has triggered bitter exchanges between the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress Party. The BJP has called Patil "a person unfit to occupy the highest office." Congress has hit back at the BJP candidate, Shekawat, criticizing him for joining the British-run police force in 1942 at a time when India was struggling for independence.

The president's post is largely ceremonial, but it can become significant in times of political turbulence. The results of the election will be announced Saturday.