Draupadi Murmu
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets National Democratic Alliance (NDA) presidential candidate Draupadi Murmu in New Delhi on June 23, 2022. Image Credit: ANI

By announcing Draupadi Murmu on June 21 as its presidential nominee, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has created history. The 64-year Murmu, who served as Jharkhand’s governor, also the first woman to do so, hails from the Mayurbhanj district in Orissa. She was a Member of the Legislative Assembly and member of the Odisha state cabinet. She is, in addition, a survivor with true emotional grit, having endured great personal losses in the deaths of her husband and children. 

Murmu has attracted special attention because she belongs to the Santhal community, speakers of an Austro-Asiatic language, identified as a Scheduled Tribe as per Part XVI of the Indian Constitution. That she is the first person from a Scheduled Tribe to be nominated to the highest office of the land is a landmark in the annals of social justice in India.

While we will have to wait till July 21 to know the results of the Indian presidential elections, her elevation to the august position of India’s Head of State, given the numerical advantage NDA enjoys in the electoral college, is a foregone conclusion. Besides, other political parties, which are not members of NDA, have also rushed to offer support to her candidature.

Backing from other parties

These include YSR Congress of Andhra Pradesh, Biju Janata Dal (BJD) of Orissa, Janata Dal (United) and Lok Jan Shakti Party of Bihar, Janata Dal (Secular) of Karnataka, and Bahujan Samaj Party, which once ruled Uttar Pradesh. The opposition candidate, Yashwant Sinha, formerly a BJP cabinet minister who joined the All India Trinamool Congress, seems unlikely to pose a real challenge to Murmu.

We must remember, however, that terms such as “tribal” or Adivasi (first inhabitant) can be misleading. Adivasi, probably a back translation from “aboriginal” or “indigenous,” is a relatively recent coinage. Communities such as the Santhals, according to the linguists and anthropologists, began settling in India from South East Asia and China some 4,000 years back, mixing with local inhabitants. Concentrated in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Bengal, and Odisha, they number approximately 7 million.

The tribal population of India is close to 8.6% or over 104 million, according to the 2011 census. In the last eleven years, these figures would have gone up considerably. Besides the aforementioned states, tribes abound in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, all over the North East, and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. It would be no exaggeration to say that, far from being marginal, they are spread across the length and breadth of the land and have played a major role in all aspects of the evolution and development of Indian civilisation since the earliest of times.

Draupadi  Murmu
Draupadi Murmu, the National Democratic Alliance's presidential nominee, has served as governor of the Indian state of Jharkhand. She hails from the Mayurbhanj district in Orissa. Image Credit: ANI

If anything, Draupadi Murmu’s nomination is a somewhat belated recognition. In fact, the putative “Father of the Nation,” Mahatma Gandhi, wanted precisely the most underserved and underprivileged person to be the first president of India. In his prayer meeting of June 27, 1947, before independence, he said, “if I have my way the President of the Indian Republic will be a chaste and brave Bhangi [sweeper] girl. If an English girl of 17 could become the British Queen and later even Empress of India, there is no reason why a Bhangi girl of robust love of her people and unimpeachable integrity of character should not become the first President of the Indian Republic” (Collected Works, vol. 95: 347-348). Gandhi wanted to “show to the world that in India there is no one high and no one low.”

When she travels all over the world as India’s Head of State, Murmu will exemplify, contrary to all the negative press, that Narendra Modi, the BJP, and Indian society as a whole, are much more accepting of diversity and much more committed to removing social inequality than many other more so-called advanced nations. That she follows Ram Nath Kovind, a Dalit or member of the Scheduled Castes of the Indian Constitution, only strengthens the BJP’s social justice credentials. That this government has been bold in breaking with earlier calculations and compulsions is all the more creditable.

More from Makarand R. Paranjape

I can’t help, in closing, to recall Mahasweta Devi’s famous short story, Draupadi, translated into English by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and rendered world-famous. In this story, the eponymous protagonist, a Santhal tribal woman, is dreaded and wanted as a rural revolutionary, who, along with her husband, for having attacked and killed landlords. When she is apprehended and tortured by the police, she strips her clothes and spits in the face of the Senanayak, the commander of state forces.

This story was removed from the syllabus of the Delhi University amidst much hue and cry by Left-Liberals. What the real, as opposed to fictional, Draupadi confirms is that, contrary to the relentless anti-state and some would say anti-national, propaganda against India in general and BJP in particular, both have consistently demonstrated their commitment to our foundational values as enshrined in the Constitution of India. It seems as if the propagandists, by a peculiar irony of Indian democracy, have been decisively proven wrong.

That this commitment goes much beyond tokenism and identity politics is demonstrated not only by the facts and figures of development and progress, but also by the powerful message that the symbolic presence of a tribal woman as the president of the republic conveys. As an Indian, I feel proud of my President-to-be. I am confident that she will discharge faithfully and diligently her constitutional obligations and lead the country by her personal and public example as our first citizen.