(This story was published on 23 June 2022 and is being republished ahead of the elections to the office of the President of India to be held on 18 July 2022.)
Barring an unexpected hitch, the election of NDA nominee Droupadi Murmu as India’s next President is a foregone conclusion. The numbers were heavily stacked in the NDA’s favour anyway. It controls 48% of the electoral college.
All the ruling alliance needed was the backing of one non-NDA regional party to cross the halfway mark. It came from Odisha chief minister and BJD chief Naveen Patnaik. He lost no time in congratulating and extending support to Odisha-born Murmu and thus paved the way for her victory.
What Murmu's Nomination Means for the BJP
It must be an exceptionally sweet moment for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In one stroke he has accomplished three things. One, the choice of an Adivasi woman to occupy the highest office in the country sends a powerful message of social inclusion.
Almost every important community has been represented in Rashtrapati Bhavan over the past seven decades. Except the tribals. Murmu’s election will smash another glass ceiling in the struggle for the empowerment of marginalised social and gender groups, symbolic though it may be.
Two, he has finessed the opposition with masterful skill. The announcement of Murmu’s candidature came just a few hours after opposition parties settled on former BJP union minister Yashwant Sinha as their nominee for the post of President. Sinha has been knocked out before the race has even started.
Barring an unexpected hitch, the election of NDA nominee Droupadi Murmu as India’s next President is a foregone conclusion.
In one stroke PM Modi has accomplished three things.
Almost every important community has been represented in Rashtrapati Bhavan over the past seven decades. Except the tribals. Murmu’s election will smash another glass ceiling
Yashwant Sinha has been knocked out before the race has even started.
The third gain is the hope of a political windfall for the BJP as well as the RSS.
Will Yashwant Sinha Withdraw His Candidature?
His campaign platform has collapsed too. After all, on what grounds can he oppose a non-controversial Adivasi woman, a former teacher, a former government employee, a politician with an innings as a minister in the Patnaik-led BJD-BJP coalition government in Odisha and a six-year stint as governor of Jharkhand? Murmu has an impressive CV with experience in administrative and constitutional responsibilities.
In fact, there are murmurs that Sinha may even withdraw gracefully to prevent further disarray in the opposition camp. More than winning, Sinha’s main task as the common opposition candidate was to consolidate and strengthen opposition unity in the face of the BJP’s recent onslaught in the Rajya Sabha polls, the Maharashtra MLC elections and now the rebellion in the Shiv Sena which is threatening to topple Uddhav Thackeray’s MVA government in Mumbai.
However, given the way politics functions, instead of unifying opposition parties, Sinha’s candidature may lead to more divisions and fractures, which will only reaffirm their fragility as a cohesive bloc. Because there will be cleavages.
Can Anyone Say No to India's First Tribal President?
For instance, JMM which is a tribal party may find it politically impossible to oppose Murmu although it is currently in a coalition government with the Congress in Jharkhand and was party to Sinha’s selection. A Santhal woman who holds a respectable track record as governor of the state has put the JMM in a tight spot.
Again, many opposition parties, particularly the Congress, have tribal MPs and MLAs. It is almost a given that they will vote for a fellow Adivasi. Community loyalty almost always trumps political commitment.
With the threat of cross voting looming over them, the opposition may have to rethink Sinha’s candidature as will he.
The third gain is the hope of a political windfall for the BJP as well as the RSS. The BJP has in recent years, lost two important tribal states: Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. It is also looking ahead at a post-Patnaik scenario in Odisha where the tribal vote is critical.
Windfall Gains for the BJP in Terms of Tribal Vote
Assembly elections are due next year in Chhattisgarh and in Madhya Pradesh which also has a significant tribal population. Clearly, the BJP hopes to reclaim the tribal vote which it has lost to parties like JMM and Congress.
The Adivasis also form an important target group for the RSS which has long been trying to wean them away from Christian missionaries and draw them into the larger Hindu family.
It is significant that in the last presidential election in 2017, the RSS had proposed Murmu’s name hoping to boost their tribal outreach programmes with this. However, at that time and in the run up to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP was focused on wooing Dalits in an attempt to weaken Mayawati and her BSP. Recall images of Narendra Modi washing the feet of sanitation workers and Amit Shah as BJP president dining with Dalits in their huts.
Modi over ruled the RSS and chose Ram Nath Kovind, a Dalit, to occupy the seat in Rashtrapati Bhavan. But with the tribal vote moving away from the BJP, political expediency has triumphed and Modi has bowed to the choice of the RSS.
While Murmu, being a woman, has not had any formal association with the RSS, she worked closely with the Sangh’s programmes among Adivasis. BJP sources say she is well liked and respected by the RSS top brass.
Will Murmu Carve a Niche for Herself?
It will be interesting to see whether Murmu is able to carve out a legacy during her stint in Rashtrapati Bhavan. APJ Kalam is remembered as the people’s President while the erudite Pranab Mukherjee left his mark as a constitutional President.
According to reports from Jharkhand, Murmu as governor was accessible to tribal groups and leaders and frequently engaged with them. In fact, she was even called in as a troubleshooter when the tribals were upset over a decision taken by the then BJP government in the state.
If PM Modi, the BJP and the RSS want future President Droupadi Murmu to further their Adivasi outreach, they may have to allow her to build her profile as the country’s first tribal President and create a niche for herself.
(Arati R Jerath is a Delhi-based senior journalist. She tweets @AratiJ. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)