A Tribal President for India?

State governor in the running to become first tribal president . . . 

Some 4,800 members of the Indian Legislative Assemblies (MLAs) and the Parliament (MPs) voted on July 18 to elect the 15th president of India. In the running is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA) candidate Droupadi Murmu, a tribal person and the first female governor of Jharkhand state. The opposition chose Yashwant Sinha as its candidate, a seasoned political leader formerly of the BJP. The Indian president, elected as the head of state for a five-year term, has a largely ceremonial role that assumes greater power in the case of hung parliaments. The prime minister and cabinet of ministers, elected directly by the people, play a more significant role in India’s political system.

Tribal rights and communities threatened . . .

Murmu hails from the Mayurbhanj district of Odisha state and belongs to the Santhal tribe, one of the largest Indian tribes that depend on the forest for their life and livelihood. The Indigenous peoples of India, officially identified as ‘Scheduled Tribes,’ represent about 8.6 per cent of the Indian population. During her tenure as the governor of Jharkhand, in 2017, Murmu returned amendments to two controversial bills – the Chhotanagpur Tenancy (CNT) Act and the Santhal Pargana Tenancy (SPT) Act. The amendments sought to ensure tribal land ownership did not change but gave tribal people the right to commercialize their land. Meanwhile, last month, the BJP-led Indian government announced new rules under the Forest (Conservation) Act of 1980, under which the central government will no longer need prior consent from forest dwellers to divert forest land for non-forest purposes.

Political symbolism or a step in the right direction?

While Murmu is expected to receive almost 60 per cent of the vote, the election of a tribal person as the Indian president has raised the question of whether it is a symbolic gesture by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP to build political capital for the 2024 general elections. While some people find the possibility of a tribal president a remarkable opportunity that legitimizes India’s tribal populations, others are skeptical about Murmu’s impact on tribal rights. A case in point is incumbent President Ram Nath Kovind. India's second Dalit president since independence, he rarely spoke out about the rights of Dalits, a caste minority, despite staggering statistics about the abuses they face. The new president will be announced before July 24. Meanwhile, Congress Party leaders in Karnataka have filed a complaint with the Election Commission against Murmu for violating the law and unduly influencing Karnataka MLAs with material incentives. Pending further review, at the very least, this could result in Murmu losing 122 MLA votes.