Tribal teacher set to defeat former BJP Minister to be India’s next President


Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) picked up a school teacher turned tribal politician from Odisha (former Orissa, ancient Kalinga of Ashoka Empire) as its nominee against a former BJP Minister who is now backed by the Congress and other opposition parties.

The 64-year-old former teacher, Draupadi Murmu belongs to a tribal community in Odisha, and she has been with the BJP for several decades. She was earlier appointed as Governor of Jharkhand State by the BJP Government.

In the elections slated for 18 July, Murmu will be pitted against the opposition candidate – veteran politician and former BJP leader Yashwant Sinha. A senior minister in the BJP Government led by then Prime Minister Atal Bihar Vajpayee in the 1990s and early 2000s, Sinha is now a vocal critic of the party and Modi.

Congress and other opposition parties first wanted to nominate either former Minister Sharad Pawar, former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah or former High Commissioner to Sri Lanka Gopalkrishna Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson. When they declined the offer, the opposition picked Yashwant Sinha.

Indian President is elected by the members of both the Houses of Parliament – Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha – and of the legislative assemblies of 29 States and federally-administered union territories. The BJP has enough numbers to ensure its nominee’s victory.

As the President in India is the Head of the State, but does not exercise executive powers, most of the occasions a prominent national leader is named in consultation with the opposition. First President
Dr Rajendra Prasad and his successors Dr. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan and Dr Zakir Hussain were top intellectuals with international standings.

In 1969, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi changed the tradition by fielding V.V. Girias an independent candidate against Sanjiva Reddy, the nominee of her own Congress Party. That was a rebellious move by Indira Gandhi to oust conservative leaders like Morarji Desai, Sanjeeva Reddy, K. Kamraj and S. Nijalingappa from the Congress Party. After Giri, who was the first Indian envoy to Ceylon, became President, Indira Gandhi split the Congress and became the leader of Congress (I) Party. Although Indira Gandhi ruled with a comfortable majority until 1977, her decision to impose emergency in 1974 gave a reason to the divided opposition to unite and after Janata Party came to power Sanjeeva Reddy became the President of India.

Barring the 1969, the Indian presidential elections never considered to be a test of political strength.

As the BJP has majority in Parliament as well as in key states, the victory of Draupadi Murmu is a foregone conclusion. The winning candidate will replace President Ram Nath Kovind whose term ends on 24 July. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said he is confident that she will make a great president.

Murmu belongs to the Santhal community, one of India’s oldest and largest tribal groups. She has devoted her life to serving society and empowering the poor, downtrodden as well as the marginalised.

BJP President JP Nadda said Murmu was chosen after a detailed discussion of 20 names that the party and its allies had considered.

Murmu said she learnt about her nomination from television and the news had ‘surprised’ and ‘delighted’ her. “As a tribal woman from remote Mayurbhanj District, I had not thought about becoming the candidate for the top post,” she told reporters after learning of her nomination.

Daughter of a village council chief, she studied at the Ramadevi Women’s College in the State Capital, Bhubaneswar.

Beginning her career as a clerk for the Odisha Government, she served as a junior assistant in the irrigation and energy department from 1979-1983. Later she became a teacher at Sri Aurobindo Integral Education and Research Centre in Rairangpur.

After joining the BJP, she was elected to the State assembly twice – in 2000 and in 2009 – from the Rairangpur seat.From 2000-2004, she was a minister in the state’s coalition government, led by Naveen Patnaik of the BijuJanata Dal party. Initially in charge of commerce and transport, she later handled the fisheries and animal resources portfolios.

From 2006 to 2009, Murmu was the president of the BJP’s state wing for ‘scheduled tribes’ – tribal communities recognised by India’s constitution as socially and economically disadvantaged.She left active politics in 2015 after she was appointed as the first female governor of the neighbouring state of Jharkhand.

By Sugeeswara Senadhira