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India's parliament elects first female speaker - a member of the lowest caste

NEW DELHI - India's parliament Wednesday elected its first-ever female speaker, the daughter of a former deputy prime minister and a member of the country's lowest caste.

NEW DELHI - India's parliament Wednesday elected its first-ever female speaker, the daughter of a former deputy prime minister and a member of the country's lowest caste.

Meira Kumar, 64, was elected unopposed and immediately assumed her post. Legislators thumped their desks to cheer Kumar 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 minister and a prominent leader of the Dalits - known also as the untouchables - who sit on the lowest rung of India's complex caste system.

Kumar replaced Somnath Chaterjee, a member of the Brahmin caste, India's highest.

A lawyer by training, she has been elected to parliament five times and has also 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 Monday.

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.

Kumar's election is seen as a political move that will likely boost the Congress party's image as pro-female and a supporter of the rights of the lower castes. The party chose Pratibha Patil as president - the country's first female head of state - in 2007.

Women's rights activists welcomed the election.

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

India has had other women in positions of power - most notably Indira Gandhi, who was elected prime minister in 1966.

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

 
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