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When the BJP chose Droupadi Murmu as the National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA) presidential candidate, the party had in mind the elections in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan for which it has already begun preparations. The tribal population in these states is a significant support base that the party does not want to dilute.
But the elevation of a tribal woman to the position of head of state will pose some challenges to the BJP in the coming five years. With Murmu taking over the highest constitutional post in the country, the party will have to rise to meet the expectation and aspirations of the 104 million-strong tribal population that constitutes 8.6 per cent of the Indian population.
In her first speech in the Central Hall of Parliament, Murmu said, “I belong to the tribal society and I have got the opportunity to become the President of India from the Ward Councilor. This is the greatness of India, the mother of democracy. I want all our sisters and daughters to be empowered more and more as they continue to increase their contribution in every field of the country.”
In her political life preceding her rise to the presidency, Murmu cemented her reputation as an ardent advocate of tribal rights. During her tenure as the Jharkhand governor, she refused to give assent to a Bill approved by the government led by the BJP’s Raghubar Das. The Bill sought to give tribals the right to make commercial use of their land. With a President like Murmu in Rashtrapati Bhavan, the BJP will have to tread cautiously when it comes to reform measures or legislation that may draw the criticism of environmentalists.
Already, the BJP government’s steps to ensure ease of business have led to accusations the moves were about diluting green laws to please some corporates. There has been criticism from environmental activists about the proposed changes to the Wild Life Protection Act, 1972 and the Biological Diversity Act, 2002, and the alleged dilutions in the rules of the Forest (Conservation) Act and the Forest Rights Act.
If the Rashtrapati Bhavan gets flooded with requests seeking Murmu’s intervention in agitations and protests by tribal activists against their respective government’s efforts to push the development agenda, the BJP won’t be able to keep silent. This includes protests against mining in Jharkhand, Odisha, and Chhattisgarh, among other states, and projects such as the Par Tapi Narmada river-linking project in Gujarat that activists estimate will displace 50,000 Adivasis.
The BJP will face another challenge when governments led by the party are ready to proceed with their agenda on the Uniform Civil Code (UCC). A number of tribal groups have voiced their apprehensions about it. The Rashtriya Adivasi Ekta Parishad, an organisation that works to protect tribal interests, has moved the Supreme Court seeking the protection of tribal customs and religious practices, including their right to practice polygamy and polyandry.
The party will now be more exposed to criticism over crimes against tribals and governments led by the party will have to see to it that such incidents are brought down. The BJP government in Madhya Pradesh recently came under fire for the alleged lynching of two tribal men in Seoni district over suspicion of cow slaughter.
The BJP cannot afford to ignore the tribal community in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan (elections in these states are scheduled to be held in 2023) or in Gujarat, which is going to polls later this year. In Madhya Pradesh, 21 per cent of whose population belongs to tribal communities, electoral fortunes are closely linked to tribal support and Adivasis played a significant role in the BJP’s electoral wins till 2018. The party has already launched massive attempts to regain its grip over the support base in the state. That is why the state unit organised grand celebrations to mark Murmu’s nomination for the top post. When controversy broke out following Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury’s “Rashtrapatni” remark, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan was one of the first leaders to condemn it.
The choice of Murmu for Rashtrapati Bhavan was historic as it happened decades after Jaipal Singh Munda — the hockey player who became the tribal representative in the Constituent Assembly — pointed out that there was no tribal woman in the Advisory Committee of the Constituent Assembly. On January 24, 1947, in his intervention, Munda said, “While I find my own name in it, I am bound to point out that there is no name of any tribal woman in the Advisory Committee. How has that been left out? There is no tribal woman member in the Advisory Committee. That never occurred to the people who were responsible for the selection of members of the Committee. I am not saying that she should be included, but it is significant that the thing has not been seriously considered.”
Munda’s concern was addressed on July 25 in the same Central Hall where he had raised it in 1947. The BJP can claim credit for it as the party tried to “right the injuries” of thousands of years. But in the coming years, the party has to show if it will rise to the expectations of tribal communities across India to protect their rights and interests or if its Presidential choice was just a vote-bank strategy ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.