Who is Draupadi Murmu, India's likely next president?

Tuesday, 19 July 2022 (15:17 IST)
Around 4,800 members of India's parliament and legislative assembly cast their votes this week to elect the 15th president.

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate Draupadi Murmu has a clear edge over opposition nominee Yashwant Sinha, with over 60% votes expected to be cast in her favour.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP controls enough seats in federal and state legislatures to push its favoured candidate. Murmu is also likely to receive the support of other regional parties in state assemblies, political analysts estimate.

India's Constitution makes the president the nominated head of state, while vesting all the real powers in the prime minister and council of ministers — the elected representatives of the people.

A long political career

Murmu belongs to the forest dependent Santhal tribe of Odisha. The tribe is spread over four states and is India's largest scheduled tribe after the Bhils and Gonds.

Over 84 million people belonging to 698 communities spread across India are identified as members of scheduled tribes. They continue to be marginalized —socially, economically and culturally. Tribes are generally poor, and lack access to healthcare and education in remote villages.

"Her election will be historic. I think we need to go beyond the symbolism and cynicism that has dominated the narrative. It is good fortune for the tribal population in the country," Kiran Kumar Soren, a political science student, told DW.

Murmu started out as a teacher before entering state politics. She has been a legislator twice, on a BJP ticket, in 2000 and 2009.

In 2015, Murmu was appointed as the first female governor of the eastern state of Jharkhand, holding the position until July 2021.

As governor, Murmu returned two controversial bills — the Chhotanagpur Tenancy (CNT) Act and Santhal Pargana Tenancy (SPT) Act — in view of the widespread agitation from tribes after the state sought to dilute their rights over their land.

Though scheduled tribes receive reservation in Parliament and assemblies according to their proportion to the population, progress to address their social and economic marginalization remain slow.

Some see Murmu's elevation to potential president as a triumph of tribal political aspirations and a breakthrough moment for the community, which has long been neglected and exploited under several governments.

"I would not call her nomination as symbolic. It is a fight for political legitimacy in the mainstream and the national political system," Ritambhara Hebbar, a professor at the Centre for Study of Developing Societies of the Mumbai-based Tata Institute of Social Sciences, told DW.

"Her rise epitomizes a struggle, and she has worked her way up — a reflection of her political acuteness," added Hebbar.

Can Murmur help empower India's tribes?

Some political commentators are doubtful whether Murmu's ascension would necessarily bring any substantial change in the lives of ordinary tribe members.

In the past, previous presidents from marginalized and minority backgrounds seldomly voiced the concerns of others from their communities.

Critics referred to president incumbent Ram Nath Kovind, India's second Dalit president, for not raising the issue of atrocities against Dalits, who are considered to be the "lowest" rank of Hinduism's complex hierarchy of caste.

At least 50,291 crimes against Dalits were registered in different states in 2021 alone, according to government figures.

Similarly, critics — citing former President Pratibha Patil — also doubt having a female president would improve the lives of women in India.

"The elevation of a leader from a marginalized community or group does not necessarily mean that the entire community or group will benefit," Ivy Imogene Hansdak, a Santhal poet and associate professor at New Delhi's Jamia Millia Islamia university, told DW.

"The only thing I can dare to hope for is that the chequered history of India's tribal people might enter the public discourse through her. Though she lacks agency while in office, she can still be a catalyst for change simply by occupying the office of president," said Hansdak.

But many still hold out hope that Murmu's presidency can signify a long-awaited inclusion of tribal members.

"Her election will have an impact. This is not a question of optics. She can prove to be hope for a community that has not participated in mainstream India and has been neglected," Suresh Murmu, a school teacher from Jharkhand, told DW.

When her candidature was announced by the BJP led coalition last month, Murmu declared: "I am surprised as well as delighted. As a tribal woman from remote Mayurbhanj district, I had not thought about becoming the candidate for the top post."

The counting of votes is expected to take place on July 21 while the next president will take oath on July 25.

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