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India's Parliament Chooses First Woman Speaker

Anjana Pasricha

India's newly-elected parliament has elected its first woman speaker  - Meira Kumar. She is also a member of the country's low-caste Dalit community. Her name was put forward by the Congress Party, which won a sweeping victory in the recent general elections.

Amid applause from lawmakers across ruling and opposition benches, 64-year-old Meira Kumar was elected, unopposed, by a voice vote as speaker of the lower house of Parliament, Wednesday.

A smiling Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described it as an "historic occasion." 

"For the first time, a woman member of this august house has been elected as speaker, and that, too, a woman belonging to the Dalit community. In electing you to this august office, we members of Parliament pay tribute to the womanhood of our country," he said.

Not new to Parliament

Meira Kumar is a five-term member of Parliament.  She was sworn in as a Cabinet  minister last week, but resigned after the Congress Party offered her the speaker's post.

She is the daughter of a former deputy prime minister, Jagjivan Ram, who was a prominent leader of the low castes. 

Political analysts say the choice of Meira Kumar as speaker will enable the Congress party achieve twin objectives as it seeks to build on its decisive victory in the recent general elections.

Image boost

It will boost the Congress party's image as being a pro-women party.  During its last term in office, the Congress Party was instrumental in helping Pratibha Patil become the country's first woman president.

Even more significantly, the party hopes to strengthen its base in the low-caste Dalit community, which in recent decades has switched its loyalty to a host of regional parties headed by low-caste leaders.  The Dalits belong to the lowest rung of Hindu religion's complex caste system and have faced discrimination for centuries.  Congress wants to be seen as a party committed to improving their social and economic status. 

A smiling Meira Kumar said she is overwhelmed and has promised to do her best in her new job.

"It would be my endeavor to run the house as well as I can and give a very fair chance to all sections of the house," she said.

Not easy

The task may not be easy in a house where noisy disruptions are common and  lawmakers frequently stall proceedings by shouting slogans and storming the podium.

The prime minister has already appealed to lawmakers to observe a "new beginning" and allow parliament to function smoothly.

Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee backs the plea.           

"Perhaps I would like to have the indulgence of the house that ... we would like to create a new precedent not of obstruction, but debate and discussions," said Mukherjee.

But not many people are sure that will happen in India's raucous and noisy democracy.

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