India’s first tribal president: Dawn contributor

ISLAMABAD (DAWN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) – India is such a complex country with its mosaic of ethnicities, belief systems, castes, sub-castes, regions, languages that are perpetually jostling to catch the eye, and so much else in variety among its people, that it could never be easy for the state to ensure that nobody gets left behind in the headcount.

For this reason and more, Droupadi Murmu’s election as India’s new head of state deserves the applause she has got. After all, whatever be the other readings of the event it is a sordid fact that it took Indian democracy 75 years to find a president from among its most under-served and vulnerable communities, the tribespeople.

That the new president is a woman doubles the honour to the office she will be holding for five years. This is not to say that all was bleak so far. There has been at least one president who was a woman, and there have been Dalit presidents too, a blessing in a patriarchal and caste-riddled society that plies India’s democracy.

It is equally a fact too that the president’s office is a largely ceremonial post. President Murmu’s most visible assignments would be to read out the right-wing and divisive government’s draft policy in her presidential addresses to parliament. That’s the norm.

As president, Ms Murmu would also have the power to commute death sentences and as constitutional supreme commander of the armed forces, take the salute at the annual Republic Day military parade. Perhaps her most critical role would be to invite the winner of a general election to run the government as prime minister.

In inconclusive elections, the president plays the tipping role, a useful asset for any government to treasure. Indian elections have often surprised the pundits, and the outcome of the critical races in 2024 could be no different. That’s when any president’s mandated neutrality is usually tested.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee, for example, was needlessly sworn in as prime minister without a remote chance of cobbling a majority after the indecisive 1996 polls. He resigned without facing the required vote of confidence and that too within 13 days of taking the oath, but not before inserting a cow protection promise in the address president Shankar Dayal Sharma would make to parliament.

Ms Murmu has not arrived centre stage from oblivion. She has been a BJP MLA a few times, and worked as minister in the Orissa coalition. She was governor of the predominantly tribal and coal-rich state of Jharkhand, apparently handpicked by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015, a year after his election. There’s a video of her speaking for justice for all citizens as Jharkhand governor.

However, her election campaign coincided with the supreme court’s decision to censure a Gandhian activist who was seeking a fair probe into the alleged murder of a group of tribal civilians by security forces. Reports abound too of forestland being grabbed illegally, of how rules are tweaked to help corporates usurp the rights of the forest-dwelling tribespeople. Environment laws are being subverted to favour businesses, activists say.

A picture of India’s president-elect doing the rounds on social media shows her standing in obeisance with the chief of the far right Hindu Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh Mohan Bhagwat before a portrait of Mother India, an early 20th-century construct of Bengali freedom fighters.

History mocks the claim that a president’s origins in a social group helps the group. Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed was a Muslim president who illegally signed Indira Gandhi’s emergency proclamation. One of the most violent state actions that followed came against Muslim residents of Old Delhi whose homes were razed with bulldozers.

The story hasn’t changed much. Bulldozers are again terrorising the less privileged, only more viciously. There are Muslim governors and there have been Muslim ministers in the current dispensation but one hasn’t heard from them on the plight.

Dilip Kumar used a phrase to describe the syndrome. Using a north Indian idiom in the movie Kranti about collaborators of foreign rulers, he said: “Kulhadi mein lakdi ka dasta na hota/ To lakdi ke katne ka rasta na hota.” (But for the wooden handle in the axe, there would be no way for the axe to harm the trees.) It was a Sikh president in office when the Indian army attacked the Golden Temple in Amritsar. The outgoing president is a Dalit. Did the assaults on Dalits abate in his tenure?

In the wider world too, the anomaly is thriving. The most crucial job expected of Barack Obama was to help bridge the racial divide in his country. Did he? Could he? If anything, his rise presaged the entry of Donald Trump. And he may not have been entirely blameless.

On his way to becoming the first black president of America he shut the doors on the black priest who baptised his daughters and gave the title of his book – Audacity of Hope. Did Jeremiah Wright say something that Obama didn’t want him to say? The media flashed an old clip that showed him berating American policy on Palestine. And Obama slammed the door shut.

In identity politics, leaders often kick the ladder that brought them up. British prime ministerial hopeful Rishi Sunak’s forebears were Indian migrants from East Africa. Hear him getting vocal against immigrants. There’s nothing racist, he says, about moving ‘some’ migrants to Rwanda, the region his grandparents ran away from.

Often, promoting such ethnic profiles masks an insidious purpose. Since President Zelensky is Jewish, how could he conceivably be party to the rise of the neo-Nazi Azov fire-breathers? Sadly, we may get to find out when the war ends sooner or later and the extremists are left owning a dump of the most lethal weapons ever used in Europe. President Murmu may know all this and more.

  • The writer is a correspondent for the paper. Dawn is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 22 news media organisations.