India has got its first tribal President. In a much-expected result, National Democratic Alliance (NDA) candidate Droupadi Murmu defeated Yashwant Sinha, who was backed by a section of the Opposition. While Murmu bagged 64% vote share, Sinha could muster only 36%. Murmu couldn’t better outgoing President Ram Nath Kovind’s performance of 65.65% vote share.
The result exposes the chinks in opposition unity as a few parties, such as the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), which backed Sinha’s candidature, committed a U-turn and voted for Murmu instead. The spearheaders of Sinha, namely the Congress, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), were unable to garner support from fence-sitters such as the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and the YSR Congress Party (YSRCP) to name a few.
While no cross-voting was reported from the NDA camp, a few MLAs of the Congress, the SP and the NCP openly declared that they had voted for Droupadi Murmu and not Yashwant Sinha.
As per reports, 17 MPs and 104 MLAs cross-voted for Murmu till the third round of polling.
While the BJP put up a new breed of leaders for President and Vice-President, the Opposition put up tried, tested and failed candidates.
Cross-voting was expected since many women MPs/MLAs, especially those who won on ST-reserved seats on opposition tickets, were caught in a dilemma as to whom to support. This was also the case for many electors from states that have a high ST population.
The result exposes the chinks in opposition unity. Regional considerations weigh high for regional satraps, which renders the victory of joint opposition candidates almost impossible.
How Opposition Missed the Bus
On the other hand, the BJP, by announcing a woman and a tribal candidate, made it difficult for most fence-sitters to oppose its candidate. Strategically, the opposition could have waited out to see who the BJP announces as its candidate and could have then finalised its own move.
In a lost battle, it could have wriggled out of the contest on the pretext of supporting a woman and a tribal candidate.
This way, the opposition would have been able to contain damage amongst women and tribal voters, a section of whom may not like their attitude of contesting a candidate from their community. The opposition could have also gained the high moral ground that it supported Murmu despite the fact that the BJP didn’t reach out to them for discussions and for ensuring a consensus candidate.
Massive Cross-Voting Benefited Murmu
The electoral college consisted of 4,809 MPs and MLAs. The total value of the votes was 10.86 lakh. However, there were 11 vacancies and 44 MPs/MLAs who abstained from voting. While the Presidential polls saw a high turnout of 99.1%, vacancies and a few electors’ not turning up reduced the electoral college votes to 10.72 lakhs.
Based on the strength in the electoral college, Murmu enjoyed the support of 49.5% of electors. Together with parties like the BJD, the YSRCP, the Shiv Sena, the JMM, the TDP, the BSP, the SAD and others, she gained the support of another 11.5% of electors, taking the total to 61.1%. On the other hand, 38.9% of electors were expected to back Sinha. These included the UPA led by the Congress and anti-BJP/NDA parties such as the TMC, the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI-M), etc.
In Presidential elections, parties are not allowed to issue whips and MPs/MLAs can vote on the basis of their conscience. This generally leads to cross-voting. Lacking the numbers to win, Sinha had openly exhorted MPs/MLAs to cast a conscience vote to save democracy. While no cross-voting was reported from the NDA camp, a few MLAs of the Congress (Odisha), the SP (Uttar Pradesh) and the NCP (Gujarat & Jharkhand) openly declared that they had voted for Murmu, not Sinha.
As per reports, 17 MPs and 104 MLAs cross-voted for Murmu till the third round of polling. As many as 22 MLAs in Assam, six in Chhattisgarh, 10 in Jharkhand, 19 in Madhya Pradesh, 16 in Maharashtra, 10 in Gujarat, one in Arunachal, six in Bihar, four in Goa, one in Haryana, three in Himachal, and seven in Meghalaya cross voted for India’s first tribal President. The choice of Murmu clearly frustrated the calculations of the opposition.
Social Considerations Matter
Cross-voting was expected since many women MPs/MLAs, especially those who won on ST-reserved seats on opposition tickets, were caught in a dilemma as to whom to support. Also, some elected representatives of the opposition from the Northeast and other states such as Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh, which have a high ST population, were expected to back Murmu.
While the BJP put up a new breed of leaders for President and Vice-President, the Opposition put up tried, tested and failed candidates. It went with an 84-year-old Presidential candidate in a country where 60% of the population is below 35 years of age.
Murmu recorded 64% vote share (+2.9%), while Sinha recorded a 36% vote share (-2.9%). This indicates that electors worth 2.9% of votes in the electoral college cross-voted in Murmu’s favour.
Opposition Unity a 'Myth'?
The BJP hopes to consolidate the ST community’s votes by making Murmu the President of India. In 2017, it appointed Ram Nath Kovind as President, who belonged to the SC community. The BJP’s support from the community increased by 10% in the 2019 general elections (34% as against 24% in 2014). The party received 38% support from the STs in the 2019 general election as per the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), and now, it hopes to reach the halfway mark by appointing Murmu as President.
Next is the Vice-Presidential election, and here as well, by fielding a Jat candidate, the BJP has put the opposition on the backfoot.
The TMC has announced that it will abstain and not back the Congress candidate. It is increasingly becoming clear that the opposition ‘unity’, built on anti-Modism, is a myth. Regional considerations weigh high for regional satraps, which renders the victory of joint opposition candidates for such elections almost impossible.
(The author is an independent political commentator and can be reached at @politicalbaaba. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)