The process of selection and election of the President has once again showcased the beauty of Indian democracy and its faultlines, too.
Droupadi Murmu, a woman belonging to Santhal “schedule tribe” (ST) of India, is now the 15th president of India. This is history in the making as she is the first tribal person, the youngest person to hold the high office, first President to be born after the country's independence and first Odisha-born person to be the supreme commander of India’s armed forces.
Only an utter disregard about the indigenous people's centuries old history would make someone vote against a Santhali tribal woman from occupying the colonial era’s majestic Rashtrapati Bhavan, which has not lost its symbolic relevance to people struggling for opportunities in India's far-flung areas.
Murmu got 64% of votes but the 36% who voted against her were actually expressing their opposition less to her and more against Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Since Modi has come to power, anything that the Prime Minister does is opposed, for understandable reasons, by Congress and other political rivals.
But, this time it was a googly from Modi.
His party’s strategic electoral need to identify closely with tribal voters has perfect synergy with one of the most urgent priorities of nation — to bring tribal community in the mainstream of India.
Modi selected someone whose community could not be denied its due. Why would any sensitive politician, who understands the enormous exploitation faced by Adivasis — oldest inhabitants of India — vote against a district-level, non-controversial tribal leader, who emerged strong enough to be selected by the ruling party?
The opposition parties opposed Murmu because, they allege, she would be a rubber stamp of the Modi government. The argument carries weight.
But when the opposition is entirely incapable of getting united and putting numbers right to elect their own candidate, Murmu was the best choice offered by the wily BJP.
The last 72 years of Indian Presidential history offers no guarantees as to who will or will not be a rubber stamp, since the post of President has come under various pressures since the 60s.
Who doesn’t remember how the Cambridge-educated Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, fifth President, signed the declaration of Emergency in 1975 at night without asking a question, which helped Indira Gandhi unquestionable control over the country?
President Zail Singh, son of a village carpenter, was least expected to raise his voice against his own party because in 1982 when Indira Gandhi made him as Congress candidate for the President’s post he remarked, “I will gladly sweep the floor if my leader Indira ji ordered me.” But, in 1987 the same affable President, well-versed with Indian ethos, turned against Rajiv Gandhi. In politics, every question has reference to the context of time in which it is raised.
The bigger question in the 75th year of India’s independence, that the opposition leaders failed to ask was: Will the presence of President Murmu on the Raisina Hill enhance the respect of tribals in Indian social pyramid?
Will the “politics of symbolism” percolate down to impact social status of tribals in jungles?
Since the 50s, we have seen tribal land, resources, and minerals being exploited by the non-tribal strata of society, without giving the original inhabitants their dues. The rise of Maoism in tribal areas can be partly attributed to their unending exploitation.
Across the board support
India’s 3991 elected member of legislative assemblies and 763 elected member of parliament, who took part (out of 4033 MLAs and 776 MPs) in voting to elect the president, were being closely watched by more than 110 million tribals (9% of population) spread over Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chatisgadh, Jharkhand to Nagaland.
Those who understand Indian tribal people know that they are sharp folk with a strong sense of self-pride. Their brilliant, ancient civilisation, based on complete harmony with nature, has been studied by scholars.
Therefore, it was no game when the opposition parties selected Yashwant Sinha, upper caste Kayastha who had a life of overwhelming privileges, against Murmu who started her career as a low-level clerk in the state government.
Rabindra Patnaik, a journalist based in Rairangpur and Murmu’s friend of decades told Gulf News, “Murmu won’t be a rubber stamp on tribal issues.”
“You mean Sinha wouldn’t have been a rubber stamp of the opposition parties?” he asked.
It is notable that Sinha still managed to bag 1877 votes that ended up Murmu getting third lowest victory margin in the Presidential poll history. This shows that Indian politics is hopelessly divided and powerful people like MPs and MLAs could not distinguish between getting national priority right and their avowed opposition to Modi.
At the same time, it was heartening to note that defying their party lines 126 MLAs across 18 states and 17 MPs cross-voted for Murmu.
When I visited Murmu’s Uperbeda village, a week before the election, driving from Rairangpur, scores of prayers were arranged in Jhakhira, tribal temples, for her victory.
In villages, seeing the delight of tribals at the chances of Murmu becoming the President, a chill passed my spine, “What if Murmu loses the election in spite of Modi’s backing? Then what?” I can assure you it would have been deception of the highest order by the non-tribal citizens.
Today history is being made as India finally has Madam President Droupadi Murmu, a tribal woman whose ancestors dwelled in forests since times immemorial, on the Raisina Hill, New Delhi — India’s seat of power.