Election In Pincodes: In tribal heartland, a clash between two narratives | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Election In Pincodes: In tribal heartland, a clash between two narratives

ByDebabrata Mohanty
May 18, 2024 11:38 AM IST

Tribespeople make roughly 9% of India and form a central narrative of the political battle between two world views – one by the BJP and another by Opposition

Rairangpur (Mayurbhanj): The sun is blistering; a heatwave is scorching through eastern India. One early May morning, five people are sitting in a group under the shade of a mango tree in Pahadpur, unhurried and content. Deep inside Odisha’s predominantly tribal Mayurbhanj district, the village of 800 people has rarely, if ever, called itself developed. Most homes are made of mud with walls painted with tribal motifs, hidden behind giant sal, teak and mango trees. There was once thick foliage, but over the decades, the exigencies of living on subsistence have taken over, and large swathes of forest cleared to create rudimentary farmlands. Most stay in farms, but for the young who travel away in the quest for a fixed wage.

Droupadi Murmu is India’s first tribal woman to ascend to the highest office in the Parliament (HT Photo/Sourced)
Droupadi Murmu is India’s first tribal woman to ascend to the highest office in the Parliament (HT Photo/Sourced)

Under the shade of the mango tree, 45-year-old Parbati Murmu, in a floral white and pink cotton saree, has a wide smile across her face. Two years ago, Murmu was left worried about Bhagaban, the eldest of her two sons. In early 2022, he finished ITI Rairangpur; before him was a life of promise. But for months, he failed to find work, sinking deeper into depression. Then, in late 2023, he enrolled at a Larsen & Toubro skill training centre where he trained in masonry. “Now he earns Rs.15,000 a month in Jagatsinghpur,” Murmu said proudly.

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Sitting next to her is 60-year-old Singhu Murmu, straining to make himself heard. “We have tap water in almost every home. There are new roads. At least five trains now run to Jamshedpur and Kolkata. An eye hospital, an archery academy and a football academy are all being built. Everything has changed,” he said.

Only one day is responsible for that change.

On July 25, 2022, 64-year-old Droupadi Murmu, in a white saree with a red border, walked up the steps of Parliament to take oath as the 15th President, India’s first tribal woman to ascend to the highest office.

At that moment, Pahadpur claimed its own little corner of history. A hundred metres away from where the group of five are sitting is the bust of Shyam Charan Murmu, the late husband of India’s commander-in-chief, and next to that is the SLS residential school which Droupadi Murmu founded in 2016.

Singhu Murmu points at the bust proudly. “She was always our favourite daughter, but now she has changed everything. All of the development you see is because of her. And because of that, the BJP will do well.”

About 12 km away, Murmu’s ancestral village of Uparbeda also displays signs of administrative largesse that can only come from special attention. Here, too, every home has an electricity meter; every home has tap water. The school where Murmu first studied is now besieged by a daily stream of visitors and has a fresh coat of paint. “Most importantly, when we call, the officials respond as quickly as they can. How can they not? This is, after all, the village of the President,” said Paita Marandi.

To Odisha, Droupadi Murmu is not just their President, but also one of them – an Odia, a tribal, a woman. The story of her extraordinary rise is not just a case of personal triumph, it is the central narrative of the battle for the tribal heartland that is playing out as a clash of two opposing world views – one closer to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s formula of marrying tribal empowerment with cultural identity politics, and the other focussed on welfare and local recognition of diverse faiths and practices. The battle for Mayurbhanj, therefore, is also a battle for the tribal vote across India.

Tribes people make roughly 9% of India
Tribes people make roughly 9% of India

Tribal politics

Since the turn of the century, the state of play in Odisha’s politics has had one constant. The Biju Janata Dal (BJD), the powerful regional outfit once helmed by Biju Patnaik, has been the undisputed political front-runner, winning both assembly and Lok Sabha elections. Naveen Patnaik has remained chief minister for 24 years. His principal opponent has changed – first the Congress and now a resurgent BJP. Despite the friction in the state, the BJD, which left the National Democratic Alliance in 2009, has repeatedly backed the Narendra Modi government on key legislation in Parliament.

March 2024 marked a kink in that road as rumours swirled of a pre-poll alliance. The prospect of a rapprochement was met with anger from both sets of cadres; the BJP workers were unhappy at the prospect of allying with a party they fought for over a decade, particularly because they believed that an outright victory was within reach; the BJD worker saw the alliance as a precursor to the dismantling of the party, and an admission that there was no second rung after Naveen Patnaik.

Eventually, talks broke down.

Leaders from both sides admit that at the heart of this dissonance was the tribal vote. Odisha has India’s third-largest tribal population at 22.85%, and of its 147 assemblies and 21 Lok Sabha seats, five and 34 respectively are reserved for Scheduled Tribes. The contest in these seats, predominantly spread across rural districts such as Koraput, Malkangiri, Rayagada, Nabarangpur, Sundargarh and Mayurbhanj, has always been fierce. In 2019, the BJD and BJP won two apiece, and the Congress won the other. In the assembly polls, the BJD won 20 and the BJP 10. This time, the BJP is throwing the kitchen sink at the BJD in this tribal heartland, and its biggest weapon is the highest office in the land.

In July 2022 in Gujarat, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that his government ensured that a “tribal daughter” became President. In Chhattisgarh in 2023, ahead of assembly polls there, he appealed to voters to punish the Congress for opposing Murmu’s candidature in what he called an “insult to the entire tribal community”. This month, in rallies in Nabarangpur and Berhampur, Modi said, “We gave the country its first tribal President who is a daughter of Odisha. It is my good fortune that President Droupadi Murmu ji advises me minutely on Odisha’s development. I believe I can do it under her guidance.”

The BJD has repeatedly praised her nomination, calling her a “daughter of the state”. But it has also shifted gears, expediting land allocation schemes for tribals such as “Mo Jami Mo Diha” (My land, My patta) -- which ensures physical verification of land allotted to tribals. In May 2023, the state government set up special development councils in 14 tribal-dominated districts for the protection, conservation and propagation of tribal culture, allocating 223 crore. In 2024, Odisha approved “Laghu Bana Jata Drabya Kraya” to procure all minor forest produce at an established minimum support price (MSP) from 14 tribal-dominated districts.

On the ground

Aharbandh is only 2km from Pahadpur, but a world apart. Saiba Murmu, a 35-year-old tractor driver, pauses for breath but has no time to think or talk about Droupadi Murmu. He sits cross-legged with six other labourers, his lunch spread out in front of him. His day began at 8am, when he started loading bricks into his tractor meant to be transported 5km away. There is sweat dripping from his brow; his lunch is pakhala (fermented rice and water) with rings of onion. He can afford nothing else. “I have a piece of land on which I would like to grow some vegetables apart from paddy. But there is no source of water other than rain. For 10 years, I have heard of borewells in my village, but they have never arrived,” he said.

Next to him, Rajaram Murmu is tired too – of the heat, of his low income of 400 a day to support his seven-member family. “Even this work isn’t available through the year. If a bank or some government agency can give us cheap loans, my dream is to start a small eatery,” Rajaram said.

For both of them, Droupadi Murmu’s rise is a matter of pride, but the battle against penury is their primary decision-maker. “I have not got any benefit. I will decide about the election based on this,” said Saiba.

In Dakeipal, 26-year-old Sushila Painsia is the cynosure of the village – a Bathudi tribal girl who travelled 115km away to the university in Baripada to complete an M.Phil and a B.Ed degree. For the past six months, Painsia has spent her days studying in one dimly lit corner of her two-room home, preparing for the Odisha Teacher’s Entrance Test this December.

Painsia will vote for the second time in 2024, and her choice is clear. “Though I have benefitted from several schemes of the Naveen Patnaik government, I want Modi. I am impressed with his nationalism and his focus on development. Change is good, and the BJD has been in power for far too long,” she said.

Dukha Hansda, a 45-year-old farmer from Rairangpur, however, said that Murmu’s elevation was irrelevant to his electoral choices. “I have got the Biju Swasthya Kalyan Yojana card for my family that has helped, and there are so many other benefits the government gives, including a pucca house. Though I do not mind Modi, my vote is for Naveen Patnaik,” he said.

Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik
Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik

The poll battle

Mayurbhanj goes to the hustings on June 1. There are multiple parties in the fray; there are pockets of Congress and Jharkhand Mukti Morcha influence, but the principal fight remains between the BJD and the BJP.

In 2019, the BJP fielded Bisweswar Tudu, who won by 25,000 votes. Immediately after, he was made Union minister for Jal Shakti and tribal outreach. Five years later, amid allegations of high-handedness, Tudu was dropped in favour of Nabacharan Majhi, the MLA from Rairangpur.

The BJD has fielded revenue and disaster management minister Sudam Marandi, the party’s most prominent tribal leader in the region.

The difference in their strategies is clear. The BJD’s pitch is to localise the election; take it away from debates around the PM or anti-incumbency, and focus on Patnaik’s schemes. The BJP is talking about aspiration and change; positioning itself as the party that championed the tribal cause in Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Sudam Marandi, the BJD’s Lok Sabha candidate from Mayurbhanj, said that tribals always found centrality in the design of the state government’s development programmes. “Take for example the Mo Jangal Jami Yojana, which recognises community rights of tribal forest land, or the dropping of 48,000 cases against members of the community. This will all hold us in good stead,” he said.

But Ganesh Ram Singh Khuntia of the BJP is confident that the party will gain ground in the tribal heartland. “President Murmu’s ancestral village and the residence of her in-laws are both in my constituency, and tribals will never let her down,” Khuntia said.

The locals are united in their assessment that in a competitive campaign, the BJD’s development programmes and its rooted welfare outreach have made a material difference in people’s lives. But then, there are also the matters of the heart.

Under the shade of the mango tree in Pahadpur, the bust of the President’s late husband on the horizon, 37-year-old Rukmini Murmu smiles at her one abiding memory from last year. On May 11 last year, Rukmini rummaged through the trunk of her home, pulled out two of her finest sarees, and boarded a train to New Delhi. Two days later, Rukmini and three others from the village were driven up the gentle slope of Raisina Hill, past the imposing gates of the Rashtrapati Bhavan. She remembers alighting at the foot of a row of steps, climbing them in a daze, worried she would stumble in her excitement. On the top of the stairs was her didi, the President of India, Droupadi Murmu.

“I cannot explain what I felt at that moment,” Rukmini said. “But when I go to vote, I will carry that memory with me.”

This is the 26th in a series of election reports from the field that look at national and local issues through an electoral lens

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