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Presidential Election

Droupadi Murmu emerges winner in a no-contest

Print edition : Aug 25, 2022 T+T-

Droupadi Murmu emerges winner in a no-contest

President-elect Droupadi Murmu with Naga tribal artists while receiving greetings at her residence in New Delhi on July 22.

President-elect Droupadi Murmu with Naga tribal artists while receiving greetings at her residence in New Delhi on July 22. | Photo Credit: MOORTHY RV

The BJP’s claim of empowering the tribal community through her election might be mere rhetoric.

Right from the moment it was announced, Droupadi Murmu’s candidature in the July 18 presidential election was rated by political observers as yet another astute realpolitik manoeuvre of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his associates in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA). In many ways, the move is similar to the one that Modi made five years ago when he put forward the candidature of Ram Nath Kovind, who belongs to a Dalit community, as President. At that time, the step was promoted as a milestone in the empowerment history of marginalised Dalit communities. Similarly, it is being said now that having Droupadi Murmu, a Santhal from Odisha, as President will lead to the betterment of tribal communities all over India.

The BJP-NDA leadership did expect the campaign along these lines to create confusion among the opposition parties. As it turned out, the campaign’s impact was greater than anticipated. It practically threw the opposition ranks into disarray, leading to a huge triumph for Droupadi Murmu and a resounding defeat for Yashwant Sinha, the joint candidate of the opposition.

Yashwant Sinha, joint Opposition candidate for the President’s post.
Yashwant Sinha, joint Opposition candidate for the President’s post. | Photo Credit: SANDEEP SAXENA

The run-up to the presidential election witnessed the desertion of several parties aligned to the Congress, the principal opposition party. These include the Jharkhand Mukthi Morcha (JMM), the Congress’ ally in Jharkhand, and the Shiv Sena, which had run a government with the Congress in Maharashtra until recently. The Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP), an ally of the Samajwadi Party (SP), the principal opposition to the BJP in Uttar Pradesh, also broke ranks to oppose Sinha’s candidature and support Murmu. Many other self-professedly non-aligned parties like the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party (YSR Congress), Janata Dal (Socialist), Lok Janshakti Party (Ram Vilas), Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) extended their support to Murmu despite having opposed the policies of the BJP and its governments at the Centre and in the States from time to time.

Tribal votebank

The polling in a number of States was marked by widespread cross-voting by MPs and MLAs belonging to opposition parties: while the actual number of persons who cross-voted is yet to be verified, sources in the BJP claim that as many as 125 MLAs and 17 MPs voted in Murmu’s favour. Apparently, 22 of these MLAs are from Assam, 19 from Madhya Pradesh, 16 from Maharashtra, 10 each from Jharkhand and Gujarat, and six from Chhattisgarh. Murmu garnered 64.03 per cent of votes: 676,803 out of the 1,056,980 valid votes.

President-elect Droupadi Murmu being greeted by the NDA’s vice presidential candidate, Jagdeep Dhankhar, in New Delhi, on July 22.
President-elect Droupadi Murmu being greeted by the NDA’s vice presidential candidate, Jagdeep Dhankhar, in New Delhi, on July 22. | Photo Credit: Twitter/@jdhankhar1

The presidential election follows an electoral college system, and hence the value of votes for a given ballot differs across States and Parliament and legislative assembles. Murmu led by 2,32,400 votes over Sinha among the MPs. In the round where votes from legislative assemblies were counted, Murmu’s lead over Sinha was 64,226 votes. Though she had a remarkable victory, Murmu’s vote share percentage was marginally less than that of Kovind, who got 65.65 per cent of the votes in 2017, defeating Meira Kumar of the Congress, who got 34.35 per cent of the total votes.

Several observers have drawn a straightforward connection between the presidential election and the next round of Assembly elections in a number of States with a significant tribal population, including Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and Odisha. Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh have elections later this year and Odisha early next year. Droupadi Murmu hails from Odisha, a factor that must have tilted the ruling BJD’s support in her favour. The Naveen Patnaik-led party did not want to be seen as standing against a native, especially one belonging to the tribal communities, which have a considerable vote share in the State. Similar factors relating to the tribal votebank seems to have influenced the decision of the JMM leadership.

“Opposition leaders have not been able to build a platform of resistance to the BJP’s manoeuvres.”

The hands of the Shiv Sena leadership, especially its beleaguered top leader, Uddhav Thackeray, were forced by the rebel faction led by Eknath Shinde, who became Chief Minister of Maharashtra recently with BJP support. After a series of meetings with a number of MLAs and MPs of the party, Thackeray decided to back Murmu. This decision has been interpreted as a signal to Shinde and the BJP that he is ready for negotiations and rapprochement.

Lack of unity

The “crossing over” of some other parties like the BSP, YSR Congress, TDP, SAD and Janata Dal (Socialist), cannot however be explained in such tangible terms. Probably, these parties did not want to be seen as being hostile to the BJP, particularly when corruption charges against many of them are being investigated by Central agencies like the Enforcement Directorate (ED).

Opposition leaders, including senior Congress leaders Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, have accused agencies like the ED of being actively involved in engineering defections from opposition parties to the BJP. They had cited the instances of the collapse of the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government following the mass switch-over of Shiv Sena MLAs and cross-voting by MLAs in several States during the Rajya Sabha elections.

President-elect Droupadi Murmu with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
President-elect Droupadi Murmu with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Photo Archives

Significantly, the Shiv Sena leadership, including Uddhav Thackeray, raised similar allegations after the collapse of the MVA government. Yet it acceded to the views of the majority of its MLAs and MPs to support Murmu.

Some of the accusations of the opposition do have merit. But the fact remains that opposition leaders, individually and collectively, have not been able to build up even a platform of resistance to the manoeuvres of the BJP, let alone an effective alternative coalition. The presidential election exposed this colossal lack of application and the will to move ahead unitedly. This was actually apparent right from the beginning, when the candidate was announced. The first two choices of the opposition — Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) veteran Sharad Pawar and former Governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi — refused to accept the offer to contest against Murmu. Yashwant Sinha came in as a late choice and that in itself hampered his campaign.

Vice President election

A similar situation has evolved in the election to the Vice President’s post although initially it seemed that the opposition was moving forward unitedly with the candidature of senior Congress leader Margaret Alva, who has had long stints as Minister in the Union government and later as Governor. The semblance of unity collapsed as the results of the presidential election were being released: West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee announced that her Trinamool Congress (TMC), a major component of any opposition unity plank, will abstain from voting in the vice presidential election. The TMC said it could not support Margaret Alva since the Congress had not consulted it before announcing her name. This has paved the way for yet another easy victory for the NDA’s vice presidential candidate, Jagdeep Dhankhar, who, as former Governor of West Bengal, was a thorn in the side of the TMC government.

Vice Presidential Candidate Margaret Alva along with Opposition Party MPs after filing her nomination papers at the Parliament House in New Delhi on July 19.
Vice Presidential Candidate Margaret Alva along with Opposition Party MPs after filing her nomination papers at the Parliament House in New Delhi on July 19. | Photo Credit: MOORTHY RV

The developments within the opposition camp regarding the presidential and vice presidential elections do mark a setback for opposition efforts in preparation for the 2024 general election. Their self-flagellation and confusion are bound to affect the morale of the rank and file as well as of the middle-level leadership.

At the same time, it remains to be seen how far the BJP leadership lives up to its promise of making Murmu’s presidency a watershed in Adivasi empowerment. As political observer Seshadri Kumar points out, if the BJP’s track record on Dalit socio-economic advancement in the five years of Kovind’s presidency is anything to go by, one cannot expect much from Murmu’s presidency in terms of tribal upliftment. Dalit communities have been subjected to unprecedented levels of torture in the past five years, when Kovind was President.

A.A. Rahim, member of the Rajya Sabha from the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said that even during Murmu’s campaign, facts and figures placed before Parliament exposed the Union government’s callousness towards basic responsibilities such as the filling of reserved-category teaching posts in Central universities. He pointed out that the government stated, in response to a question he raised, that there were as many as 3,669 reserved-category teaching positions, including of 880 professors, lying vacant in Central universities. Of this, 988 posts are for Scheduled Castes, 576 for Scheduled Tribes, and 1,761 for Other Backward Classes. “This data exposes the Union government’s dilution of the constitutionally mandated reservation. This also shows that the BJP’s so-called tribal assertion is nothing but hollow rhetoric,” Rahim says.

Clearly, the new President has much to contemplate and act on.