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Page last updated at 12:12 GMT, Wednesday, 3 June 2009 13:12 UK

India elects first woman Speaker

Meira Kumar greets media after being elected India"s first woman parliamentary speaker in New Delhi on June 3, 2009.
Ms Kumar's election had the support of Congress and the BJP

India's parliament has elected its first woman Speaker after a sweeping victory for the Congress party in recent general elections.

Congress veteran Meira Kumar, 64, a former lawyer and diplomat, was elected unopposed to cheers from MPs.

Ms Kumar, who is from the low-caste Dalit (formerly untouchable) community, called her appointment "historic".

Observers say her election improves the Congress party's image as pro-women and a supporter of the lower castes.

PM's tribute

Ms Kumar, who has been elected to parliament five times, holds a seat in the impoverished state of Bihar.

I will try and maintain decorum in the house and give a fair chance to all members
Speaker Meira Kumar

She is the daughter of the late Babu Jagjivan Ram, a prominent Dalit leader and former deputy prime minister of India.

"I consider myself greatly honoured for this rare and historic opportunity, which I have been given. It will be my endeavour to run the house well," Ms Kumar told reporters before her election.

After the vote, Prime Minister Singh said: "For the first time a woman member has been elected Speaker - and that too a woman from the Dalit community.

"In electing you... we members of parliament pay tribute to the women of our country and the great contribution that they have made."

Ms Kumar emerged as a consensus candidate for the post of Speaker, with the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and other parties also supporting her.

As soon as the newly-elected lower house, or Lok Sabha, met on Wednesday, Congress party president Sonia Gandhi proposed Ms Kumar as Speaker.

BJP leader LK Advani and other political leaders seconded her name. Prime Minister Singh and Mr Advani then accompanied her to the Speaker's chair to complete formalities.

Ms Kumar had been sworn in as a cabinet minister and was to have been in charge of water resources, but resigned on Sunday after being offered the Speaker's job.

'Pro-women'

Analysts say naming her as Speaker works to the advantage of the Congress as it helps the party position itself as pro-women.

It also projects Congress as a party which is concerned about the welfare of the lower castes who have faced discrimination from upper-caste Hindus for centuries.

Ms Kumar joins other women and members of minorities in positions of power in India.

The posts of president and leader of the country's governing Congress party are both held by women - by Pratibha Patil and Sonia Gandhi respectively.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is himself from the Sikh minority, while the new deputy Speaker, Karia Munda, is a member of a tribal community.



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