A new social evolution dawns on the Republic

Published on Jul 21, 2022 08:39 PM IST

Droupadi Murmu’s rise to Raisina Hill is indeed remarkable. A symbolic yet tactical move by the BJP, it marks a strategic shift to broaden its out-reach to India’s tribals

Murmu’s election flagged off a renewed political debate. A big critique by those opposed to her has been that the move is only symbolic and won’t amount to much real gain for tribal populations. This argument misses the point since the presidency has always been about symbolism. (PTI) PREMIUM
Murmu’s election flagged off a renewed political debate. A big critique by those opposed to her has been that the move is only symbolic and won’t amount to much real gain for tribal populations. This argument misses the point since the presidency has always been about symbolism. (PTI)

Droupadi Murmu’s election as India’s 15th President brings with it many firsts. If Narendra Modi was the first prime minister (PM) born after India became a Republic, Murmu will be the first Indian head of State born after the Constitution was adopted. As the first tribal leader, the first from Odisha, the second woman and youngest President (she is 64) to take office, her elevation marks a significant point of departure in the social evolution of the Republic.

Murmu’s rise from Rairangpur to Raisina Hill is remarkable in more ways than one. For instance, rarely for a politician, she has talked publicly in the past about dealing with depression and deep personal grief, including losing two children and being widowed, at different points in her life.

Her election also flagged off a renewed political debate on the nature and role of the Indian presidency itself. A big critique by those opposed to Murmu has been that the move is only a symbolic one and won’t amount to much real gain for tribal populations. This argument misses the point of the presidency.

The presidency has always been about symbolism. Debating the role of the president in the Constituent Assembly on July 21, 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru argued that even though “we did not give him any real powers” in the proposed Constitution, “we have made his position one of great authority and dignity”. Nehru made the case for the president being first and foremost a “symbol” of the country.

Importantly, Murmu’s elevation is not a one-off tactical gesture. It is part of a strategic political shift by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a natural continuation of its focused outreach to tribal groups and women post-2014. For context, India has 705 notified Scheduled Tribes (STs) who comprise 8.6% of the population. Tribal groups vary greatly across states, but one factor is common: Almost everywhere, STs lag behind the rest of India on most developmental indicators. On literacy rates, census data show, there is still a 14 percentage-point gap between STs (59%) and the overall Indian rate (73%). For ST women, it is worse.

This is why the symbolism of the first tribal woman in Rashtrapati Bhavan is significant.

Since 2014, the ”New BJP” under Modi — in contrast with the “Old BJP” which was largely a Brahmin-Baniya party — has made deep inroads in ST areas. Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) cadres have worked in tribal areas since the 1940s. But tribal groups mostly voted the Congress for decades. This equation dramatically reversed in 2014 when the BJP won a clear majority of reserved ST seats in Parliament: 26 of 47. The party, in 2019, upped this tally in ST reserved seats to 31 (41.7% vote-share). In comparison, the Congress shrunk to only four (29.21% vote-share). Apart from reserved constituencies, tribal voters are dominant in another 55 Lok Sabha seats. The BJP won a majority here too: 36 (46% vote-share) in 2019.

This ST pivot mirrored deeper inroads into non-Yadav Other Backward Class (OBC) and non Jatav-Dalit groups. This was achieved by giving these groups a much higher share in political representation structures. The BJP’s ST push followed a similar pattern. Modi’s council of ministers currently has eight ST ministers. They constitute 11.5% of his council, greater than the ST share of the population. With 27 OBC and 12 Dalit ministers, these categories together constitute over 60% of PM Modi’s council, as BJP president JP Nadda has argued.

However, the BJP’s electoral gains in ST areas, unlike its advances with OBC voters in Uttar Pradesh, did not replicate themselves in state elections in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in 2018, where the Congress bounced back. In Jharkhand, a Jharkhand Mukti Morcha-Congress-Rashtriya Janata Dal alliance won in 2019. The ST shift is still a work in progress and not irreversible.

It is not an accident that the Union Cabinet in 2021 declared November 15, the birthday of legendary tribal leader Birsa Munda, as Janjatiya Gaurav Divas. The symbolism of his birth week celebrated as part of the Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav celebrations presaged the Murmu presidency.

Similarly, new women voters have powered the BJP’s electoral advance since 2014. Traditionally, Indian women voted much less than men and voted more for the Congress than the BJP, nationally. The last general election was the first where women’s turnout was slightly higher than men. In most key states, survey data showed more women chose the BJP than the Congress. Again, greater women’s representation in power structures was a factor.

In 2019, the BJP gave more Lok Sabha tickets to women than any other Indian party. It now has the largest number of women Members of Parliament: 41. The BJP’s women contingent in the Lok Sabha is over four times larger than the next biggest female cohort, from the Trinamool Congress, and over six times bigger than that of the Congress. Furthermore, Modi’s two governments on average gave women ministers a greater share than previous administrations. The Vajpayee government had a yearly average of 9% women ministers. Manmohan Singh’s United Progressive Alliance regimes upped women’s representation as ministers to 11.2% on average. The Modi government took it to an average of 12.7%. At the party-level, the BJP now has the highest proportion of women national office-bearers vis-a-vis other major national parties. It had 16.9% women as central officer-bearers in October 2020, more than the central leadership of the CPI(M) (14.7%), the Trinamool Congress (13%), CPI (11.1%), the NCP (10.8%) and the Congress (8.5%).

For all these reasons and more, a woman tribal as President is a logical step forward and a major milestone in Indian politics.

Nalin Mehta is the author of The New BJP, Westland

The views expressed are personal

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