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India's Parliament elects its first female speaker

INDIA'S Parliament yesterday elected its first-ever female speaker, the daughter of a former deputy prime minister and an untouchable - a member of India's lowest caste.

Meira Kumar, 64, was elected unopposed.

Lawmakers thumped their desks to cheer her as she was congratulated by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and L.K. Advani, the leader of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party.

She is the daughter of Babu Jagjivan Ram, a former deputy prime minster and a prominent leader of the Dalits - known also as the untouchables - who sit on the lowest rung of India's complex caste system.

A lawyer by training, she has been elected to Parliament five times and has earlier served as social justice minister. She gave up her job as a career diplomat to enter politics.

As speaker, Kumar presides over India's powerful lower house of Parliament, or Lok Sabha. The body opened its first session on Monday.

Her election will likely boost the Congress party's image as pro-female and a supporter of the rights of the lower castes.

The speaker's job is a difficult one in India's often rowdy Parliament. Previous speakers were often forced to issue sharp reprimands or walk out when members shouted slogans and bickered, especially over contentious legislation.

The party chose Pratibha Patil as president, the country's first female head of state, in 2007. India has had other women in positions of power - most notably Indira Gandhi, who was elected prime minister in 1966.

Ranjana Kumari, the director of the New Delhi-based Center for Social Research, said it was "indicative of greater acceptance for women's leadership."

A Congress-led coalition won national elections that ended on May 16, capturing more seats than most analysts had predicted.


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