India Gets First President from Tribal Community

In India, a schoolteacher turned politician, Droupadi Murmu, has been sworn in as president, the first from the country’s tribal communities to hold the highest office. Although the position is largely ceremonial, her rise to the head of the republic is a hugely symbolic win for marginalized ethnic groups.

The 64-year-old is also the second woman president of the country.

“My election is evidence that the poor in India cannot just dream, but also fulfil those dreams,” Murmu said after taking the oath of office in parliament in New Delhi Monday. She said it was a matter of great satisfaction that those “who have been deprived for centuries” are “seeing their reflection in me.”

The daughter of a headman in Baidaposi village in the eastern Odisha state, Murmu was the first woman from her village to go to college. She belongs to the Santhal community, one of India’s largest tribal groups, and won a reputation for active participation in community affairs.

After she took office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a tweet that it was a “watershed moment for India, especially for the poor, marginalized and downtrodden.”

Tribal groups, who usually live in remote areas, make up about 8% of the population and have lagged in education and healthcare.

“To have those on the peripheries of India actually come to the center stage of the power structure is a hugely aspirational message to tribal communities,” said political analyst Neerja Chowdhury. “Whether it will improve their education, health and nutrition status remains to be seen because the president is largely a figurehead, but it will be, definitely, [a] boost [for] these communities.”

Since joining politics in 1997, Murmu served two terms as a lawmaker from the Bharatiya Janata Party in Odisha state. Most recently, she was the governor of Jharkhand state. She won the presidential race after defeating Yashwant Sinha, who was supported by the opposition. The president is elected by an electoral college consisting of members of parliament and state legislatures.

Her win was made possible by Modi’s BJP, which backed her candidacy and had enough support in parliament and state legislatures to ensure her victory. Her choice by the party is seen as an outreach to tribal communities ahead of the 2024 general election.

Political analysts point out that the concentration of tribal groups in several states where the BJP is in power is higher than the national average of 8%.

“The BJP has been ruling these states in the Hindi heartland for about 10 years and will suffer from anti-incumbency. The party will have to offset that by getting support from other communities and Modi has been eyeing the tribal groups. He wants to spread the net wider,” said Chowdhury. “Wooing tribal communities will also make a difference in eastern states like Orissa and West Bengal where the BJP wants to wrest power from the opposition.”

While the president does not have executive powers, the head of state plays a key role at times of political uncertainty. For example, when general elections are inconclusive, it is the president’s prerogative to decide which party to call on to form the government. 

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