How pliable will Draupadi Murmu be?

Will she turn out to be a rubber stamp President like her predecessor? With the JMM also extending support to the NDA nominee, the Presidential election is turning out to be a tame, one-sided affair

How pliable will Draupadi Murmu be?

Shalini Sahay

Why hasn’t the NDA nominee addressed a single press conference, asked Yashwant Sinha, the opposition’s candidate for President, this week. He had earlier asked the NDA nominee Draupadi Murmu, a Santhal from Odisha, to demand restoration of Legislative Assembly in Jammu & Kashmir; she should also affirm that as President she would oppose unconstitutional acts of the government, toppling games and defections, he dared.

With no Assembly in J&K, no MLA from the erstwhile state will vote in the Presidential election this time. But that did not deter Sinha from visiting the state, meet political leaders and support Kashmiris’ right to political voice and representation. Murmu’s handlers in the BJP saw no reason for her to visit J&K and seek support of non-existent legislators.

Inconvenient questions, however, are being raised. Even if Murmu, unlike Sinha, has not spoken against defections, toppling elected governments and the President’s duty to uphold the Constitution, will she even raise decisions that affect tribal interests?

Barely 10 days after the BJP announced her name as its candidate for President, the Union Government notified fresh Forest (Conservation) Rules, 2022. The rules eliminated the need for obtaining the consent of forest dwellers or even the Gram Sabha of the villages concerned, required earlier before clearing forests for commercial exploitation. Was Murmu briefed or even consulted? It was not required under the law but with the BJP tom-tomming its decision to promote a tribal as President, the decision betrayed a certain degree of insensitivity. Is it taking Draupadi Murmu for granted?

As the Governor of Jharkhand, Murmu had indeed refused to give her consent when the then BJP chief minister Raghubar Das wanted to amend the Chhotanagpur Tenancy Act and the Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act.

Both the laws protected tribal land rights and made it difficult for tribal land to be alienated. While the chief minister wanted to dilute the provisions and had the backing of the party in the face of tribal unrest, Murmu had stood firm. But can she display similar spine as President? Will she be as pro-active in protecting tribal rights and reservation for them?

The lot of tribals in Jharkhand did not improve much when she was Governor though. Thousands of tribals were charged with sedition during the Pathalgarhi agitation; and thousands continue to languish in jail for being seen with Maoists or seen sharing meals at haats.

Jignesh Mevani, the Gujarat legislator and Congress leader, feels that just as Ram Nath Kovind’s elevation to the Rashtrapati Bhavan made to difference to the lot of Dalits in the country,

Murmu’s election too will make little difference to the lot of tribals. Murmu’s nomination is being widely seen as BJP’s tribal outreach. RSS has been working through Vanvasi Seva Kendra and Saraswati Shishu Vihars in tribal areas for over half a century. And BJP’s poster boy Babulal Marandi, also a Santhal like Murmu, was made the first chief minister of Jharkhand. But Marandi quit the BJP for unknown reasons and floated his own regional party before doing a Ghar Wapsi a couple of years ago. But he continues to be in the doghouse in the party, which has not forgiven him yet.

In the 2019 general election, BJP did win 31 of the 47 ST reserved seats in the Lok Sabha, four more than in 2014. But it lost power in both Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, both the states having a sizeable tribal population. Out of the 29 seats reserved for Scheduled Tribes in the Chhattisgarh Assembly, it was the Congress which went on to win 25 of them. Similarly in Jharkhand, BJP could win only two of the 28 seats reserved for STs, the rest bagged by JMM and Congress. Murmu’s elevation as President, BJP hopes, would help it consolidate support of tribals in states like Gujarat, Rajasthan and Odisha as well.

Draupadi Murmu is the only Governor of Jharkhand to have completed the full five-year term since the inception of the state in the year 2000.

The unassuming and soft-spoken lady like her predecessor, it is widely believed in political circles, will sign on the dotted lines. But people who have seen her at Ranchi’s Raj Bhavan are not so sure. She has a mind of her own, claims an IAS officer from Jharkhand who goes on to add that she should turn out to be a fine pro-people President.

Murmu, a widow who lost one of her sons in a road accident in 2012 and her husband in 2014 following a heart attack, is known to be deeply spiritual. A devotee of BramhaKumaris with headquarters at Mount Abu in Rajasthan, she meditates regularly and had advised her only surviving child, a daughter, to remain single and join the order. The daughter is however married, has a two-year-old child and works in a bank.

She taught Santhali in a school before getting a job in the Odisha secretariat. A two-time MLA in Odisha, she was declared the best legislator of the year in 2007.

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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