The nomination of Droupadi Murmu as the NDA candidate for the office of the President is, quite simply, a master stroke. It can be read in many ways. First of all it can be seen as a brilliant strategic move, played by the BJP, to gain positional advantage in controlling the state. In one stroke it has demolished the emerging oppositional unity. It can also be seen as an impressive ethical gesture to build an inclusive society by giving a widow, a schoolteacher, and a member of a marginal group (three characteristics of disadvantage) an opportunity to occupy the highest constitutional office in India. Through this one act India now gets bragging rights in the community of democracies.
A third reading is to see it as a decisive manoeuvre by Droupadi’s nominators, in the perennial contest between the established elite and the ordinary people, in favour of the latter. The fourth is a cynical reading—but if one seeks a comprehensive list of readings then one must offer it—to see the nomination as another attempt by the regime to have a pliant resident in Rashtrapati Bhavan, one who serves the executive more than the Constitution. While these may be valid observations on the nomination, they are too limiting, too much of an old reflex. As readings, they do not go far enough, they do not see the potentialities of this historic moment.
I see her nomination as laden with emancipatory possibilities. Whether these will turn into reality only time will tell, and only page 347 of Nostradamus’ book will confirm. For now, however, we must just limit ourselves to examining my claim on its merits alone. Does my observation stem from the fading hopes of an aging democrat, or does it emerge from the accumulated wisdom of an incorrigible observer of the human estate? The picture of her application being submitted by the honourable Prime Minister to the returning officer—who remained seated in what must have been a very hot seat—with the candidate Droupadi Murmu standing a discreet distance behind him is for the semioticians of power to examine and cultural theorists to decode. But not now. Only five years later. Now, however, we have only to examine the moment and its possibilities.
There are three lines of exploration that the moment offers. For ease of recall let me label them as (i) the symbolic abundance of her nomination, (ii) the politics of presence that it represents, and (iii) the constitutional possibilities that one, such as she, with the historical burden she carries, can imaginatively grasp. Will she do so or won’t she is a game we will have to play over the next five years. Long ago, another Droupadi, real or mythical, shamed another assembly of powerful men by asking hard questions.
Issue of naming
Her first symbolic challenge is on the issue of naming. Since a name gives form to a thing, bestows it with significance, gives it a cultural personality, the question of naming is her first serious test. All the opinion pieces about her candidature have highlighted her ‘tribal’ identity and not that of her as a teacher or a widow, both of which are important identities in the public discourse on Indian democracy. It is, therefore, her ‘tribal’ identity that I shall stay with. Is she satisfied with being called a ‘tribal’? Words are carriers of a politics. Recall how ‘Harijan’ was rejected in favour of ‘Dalit’. ‘Tribal’ is a term that gained currency during colonial rule to describe a people considered ‘primitive’ and of an ‘inferior culture’. Civilising the savage was what the colonial project was about.
Across the world this politics of naming has resulted in ‘tribal’ being replaced by ‘indigenous people’ or ‘first nations’ or ‘aborigines’. This has happened in most places except in Africa where the tribal identity is the only identity, with the whole population being divided into tribes. It is a cultural marker of the group and does not carry the accompanying baggage of being ‘primitive’ and ‘inferior’. In Kenya, for example, Asians have been officially recognised by the government as the country’s 44th tribe. This is not the case in India. Since this group is but a fraction of the whole population, about 8.6 per cent as per the 2011 Census, the politics of naming is important since it has normative implications. Large sections, therefore, prefer to see themselves as ‘Adivasis’.
If Harijan has become Dalit, tribal has become Adivasi. In this politics of naming, the constitutional category of ‘Scheduled Tribe’ has become the political category ‘Adivasi’, the first inhabitants. But the Sangh Parivar has disputed this naming and refers to this group of marginal people as ‘vanvasis’, not first inhabitants but forest dwellers. So what will Droupadi’s position be in this naming battle? Is she a tribal, an Adivasi, or a Vanvasi? President Ram Nath Kovind did not have to fight such a cultural battle since the Ambedkarites had won it for him. He could uncontroversially be called the second Dalit President of India. Will Droupadi insist she is an Adivasi?
If her first fight is to challenge the symbolic universe that has kept her people down, her second is to determine how to occupy the cultural space of the presidency. Will she allow herself to be co-opted, in dress and ceremony, by the pomp of a brown viceroy or will she bring into Rashtrapati Bhavan, and the Rashtrapati’s world, the rich culture of dress, music, dance, celebration, sanctity, of the Adivasi. Especially dress. Imagine millions of Adivasis seeing their costumes worn by the Rashtrapati. Not the severe white sari of the orthodox widow but the colourful sari of Santhali heterodoxy.
Clothes were an important symbolic component of our freedom struggle. Gandhiji preferred to wear only a dhoti and shawl when he met the King of England. Asked if he was under-dressed, he reportedly replied that the King wore enough for both of them. Ambedkar chose the suit as a measure of Dalit modernity. Nehru adopted the sherwani as a sign of our composite culture, with the rose being an aesthetic add-on. How will Droupadi adorn herself?
The same can be asked about festivals. Will she celebrate the important Santhali festival of ‘Sorhae’, with its symbolic five days of elaborate ritual that lives out the Santhali philosophy, including feasting on chicken and eggs, or will she succumb to the dietary and ritual practices of the savarnas? If having a ‘tribal’ in Rashtrapati Bhavan is the master stroke of the NDA nomination, will Droupadi tribalise the Bhavan or will the Bhavan sanskritise her?
The politics of presence
This discussion on the abundant symbolic opportunities available to her neatly merges into the second line of inquiry, the politics of presence. Anne Phillips, the London School of Economics professor who has been writing about the ‘politics of presence’ since the 1990s, has, in a recent LSE blog, succinctly stated that “fair representation… is also about achieving a rough correspondence between the range of experiences, perspectives, and concerns in the electorate, and the range among those who act and speak on our behalf”. The keywords are “range of experiences, perspectives and concerns”.
Droupadi Murmu knows that there are few persons in power positions of the Indian state, such as the higher bureaucracy, courts, media, universities, and corporates, who can speak ‘on behalf’ of the Adivasis. Every study shows that they are the first victims of development, displaced by big infrastructure projects such as dams and mining, not rehabilitated even though promised, ignored, ignored, ignored, to become the vulnerable residents of city slums. The Adivasi has paid the price of India’s material development and its cultural growth. They have been increasingly invisibilised. They may have a presence in the legislatures of India, because of reservation, but party politics has robbed them of a voice. Will she give the Adivasi a voice? Will the inner struggles of a woman, a widow, and an Adivasi produce a robust and thick ‘politics of presence’?
Which brings me to the third line of exploration, the dare. Can she push her office to its the constitutional limits? Previous occupants, hegemonised by the protocols of office, were too afraid to do so. If she were to push her office to its constitutional limits she would give her people, and all of us, some simple gains that are easy to achieve but missing today. Let me take four scenarios that make up the President’s life: the Presidential visit, Visitorship of Central universities, regular meetings with the Prime Minister, and giving of assent to new legislation.
The first: visits. Many of these are inconsequential such as inaugurating a building or speaking at an anniversary celebration. These invitations are opportunities for the President to see the country. Because of protocol, however, state expenditure for the visit is considerable. Freshly tarred roads, painted signages, repaired street lights, active municipal workers for the first citizen’s visit. It would be fantastic if President Droupadi decides, in her five years in office, to visit four places a year in the neglected areas across the country populated by Adivasis. She would inform the government of the States that she would like to see the working of schools, hospitals, markets and water supplies in these Adivasi settlements. Imagine how much material gain such a visit would provide these Adivasi groups. Just a visit. Nothing more.
Central universities in each State could be involved to monitor the material developments of these Adivasi settlements. As the ex-officio Visitor of Central universities it would be terrific if President Droupadi received an annual audit of the functioning of the Tribal Sub Plan of the State, highlighting the Human Development Indicators of the Adivasi population, at the annual meeting the Visitor has with all the Vice Chancellors of these Central universities. Since most Central universities are strong in Social Sciences and the Humanities, this will be easy to do. Her secretariat could monitor the submission of these annual reports. In five years she would have created a valuable data set on the changing conditions of Adivasis with respect to development projects and life opportunities. Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), which has the best expertise on Adivasis, could be invited to prepare a template for such data collection. Will she or won’t she ask?
The third scenario is speaking to the Prime Minister about her concerns at their regular meetings. It is unclear if a similar practice, as in the UK, where the British Prime Minister has a weekly meeting with the Monarch to apprise her about government matters, is followed in India. If it is, then that is the occasion to convey her concerns to the head of the executive branch who has all the powers to address her concerns of Adivasi neglect. To do this regularly over five years requires clarity of purpose and a recognition that regular mention, repetition if you will, gives salience to an issue in the mind of the listener. It gets registered. It acquires significance.
And the fourth comes from Article 111 of the Constitution that specifies the power of granting assent to government legislation. Considerable imaginative play is available here. It allows the President to send some Bills back for reconsideration, withhold asset on some, and seek the Supreme Court’s advice on still others. All to safeguard the Constitution. These are the possibilities in the historic moment of her nomination. Will she grasp them?
For some reason Mahasweta Devi’s Rudali comes to mind. The NDA, by nominating Droupadi Murmu as its presidential candidate, has been audacious and imaginative. Full marks to them. But have they released a genie from the bottle of savarna propriety? And hence the question: Will she grasp the moment or will she see her ‘greatness flicker’? Will Droupadi Murmu stand just that wee bit ahead of the Prime Minister in the first photo of her presidency?
Peter Ronald deSouza is the DD Kosambi Visiting professor at Goa University. He has recently published, with Rukmini Bhaya Nair, Keywords for India , Bloomsbury, UK, 2020.