Beyond the optics of an adivasi woman president

Droupadi Murmu is all set to be the next President of India, given the numbers that the ruling party commands to get her elected against Yashwant Sinha, joint candidate of the opposition parties.

FPJ EditorialUpdated: Saturday, June 25, 2022, 01:04 AM IST
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Droupadi Murmu is all set to be the next President of India, given the numbers that the ruling party commands to get her elected against Yashwant Sinha, joint candidate of the opposition parties. Enough has been written about the political advantage to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party by nominating a woman, and one from a Scheduled Tribe, in the state elections it faces in the coming months. The symbolic significance of an adivasi occupying the country’s highest office is not lost on anyone. While the BJP can be lauded for its political strategies and unmistakable symbolism, it is necessary to go beyond the obvious. The jury is out on whether Murmu is befitting of the office she will likely occupy – the ruling party offers her professional credentials to demonstrate that she is suited to the position, while the opposition points to the power equation between her and the prime minister to point out that she is not her own person. Murmu thanked the prime minister for the opportunity when she heard her name was nominated. India’s President being beholden to its government or the ruling party does not inspire confidence or respect for the person holding the august office. To be clear, this is not the first time that the nation is witnessing a demonstration of political and personal gratitude from a person in this position. Presidents have rarely had an acrimonious or antagonistic relationship with prime ministers, except perhaps Giani Zail Singh and Rajiv Gandhi, but Presidents are not expected to be effusively emotional or grateful to prime ministers either. The Narendra Modi era has, however, made the latter appear normal. Ramnath Kovind was, like Murmu, effusive towards the PM when his name was selected as a Presidential candidate.

The gratitude may have its reasons in their inter-personal or intra-party relationships but in the context of the offices they occupy, it creates just that little room for discomfort about their working relationship. President Kovind hardly took a position on issues independent of or even slightly at variance with that of the government, even on a subject such as atrocities against Dalits. His elevation as President brought forth gushing admiration for Modi-Shah for their acumen in nominating a Dalit, though not the first, to Rashtrapati Bhavan. But what good did his five-year stint do for the Dalits; were issues of justice or atrocities flagged off more because of his presence, did administration become more sensitive? Symbolism matters but can’t be all. All parties indulge in symbolism because it offers a connection with the public, sends out signals to party workers, and helps crystallise the party’s socio-cultural identity. The BJP selecting APJ Abdul Kalam as President carried a strong symbolism in the immediate post-Gujarat-riots months. In the BJP of today, symbolism has come to acquire a life of its own, it’s become a spectacle. The prime minister washing the feet of sewage cleaners took the party’s pro-Dalit stand to a new high. Which prime minister had done anything like this, many asked. It would have been more substantive if the government had taken steps to eradicate the practice of manual scavenging. Whether Kovind or Murmu, there comes a point at which questions must be raised beyond the symbolism. This is that point. India has had a woman President before, in Pratibha Patil, but it did not make a material difference to the status of women in the country, the violence against women which continues to occur daily, or even the participation of women in politics during her tenure. Pratibha Patil, not a pushover during her long innings in Maharashtra’s politics, seemed to not hold her own while in Rashtrapati Bhavan. She seemed dwarfed by the office and also had her share of controversies. Merely having a woman in Rashtrapati Bhavan was hardly an assurance of gender justice or gender equity for India’s women. What’s called for is a progressive and justice-oriented person who can push the gender justice agenda. The greater participation of women in politics in the last few years, as studies show, is the result of complex factors rather than the presence of a woman President.

Similarly, Murmu’s adivasi background is made much of. The use of the Scheduled Tribe card appears more cynical than symbolic at this stage because governments, both at the Centre and in states, have steadfastly refused to listen to the grievances of adivasis across central India as they pushed mega projects. Hasdeo Arand in Chhatisgarh is a prime example. The socio-economic condition of tribal communities is abysmal and steadily worsening, with reports showing that the percentage of poor has increased in the last decade. Eviction from their natural habitats, displacement and distress migration are the less-heard themes in the Murmu story. The discontent among tribal communities and the parallel rise of ultra-left-wing extremism have wreaked havoc. Odisha and Jharkhand, two states associated with Murmu, are prime examples of the distress among adivasi communities. Ideally, the symbolism of selecting an adivasi woman for Rashtrapati Bhavan should have elicited hope for better times, but the art of symbolism as an end in itself demonstrated by this government evokes cynicism. Congratulations to Murmu, but don’t hold your breath for substantive improvements in the lives of India’s 84 million adivasis, who constitute nearly 8.5 per cent of her population.

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