On December 19, 1946, Jaipal Singh Munda, the Oxford-educated tribal leader and a great hockey player, rose to speak in the debate on the Objectives Resolution introduced by Jawaharlal Nehru in the constituent assembly.
Fondly known as Marang Gomke, which means great leader in Mundari, Jaipal didn’t waste a chance to berate the fact that the claims of 30 million tribals were neglected in the cabinet mission plan – that formed the basis of the formation of the constitution-framing body.
“I rise to speak on behalf of millions of unknown hordes – yet very important – of unrecognised warriors of freedom, the original people of India who have variously been known as backward tribes, primitive tribes, criminal tribes and everything else,” Jaipal said before pressing the need to correct centuries of injustice against the tribals and for more women representation.
“It is only a matter of political window-dressing that today we find six tribal members in this constituent assembly. How is it? …Is there going to be any provision in the rules whereby it may be possible to bring in more adivasis, and by adivasis I mean not only men but women also? There are too many men…we want more women.”
In the next two years, he became an eloquent voice for the cause of reservation for scheduled tribes and getting constitutional protection for it like the scheduled castes.
In the more than seven decades that have followed, the presence of tribal communities can be seen in different walks of public life, but some uncharted territories are still awaiting their arrival. Among them is the highest constitutional authority, or in other words, the chair of the head of the state – mostly a ceremonial position but with high symbolic value and rare moments of decisiveness.
But the nomination of Droupadi Murmu, the former Jharkhand governor, tribal leader and former minister from Odisha, as the BJP-led NDA candidate for presidential polls next month is set to turn a new page in the Rashtrapati Bhavan. It has a totemic resonance with Jaipal Munda’s twin wishes – of more tribal and women representation. At the same time, it shouldn’t escape memory that she isn’t the first tribal nominee for presidential polls. In 2012, BJP had backed PA Sangma, the former Lok Sabha speaker and Meghalaya chief minister belonging to Garo tribe, against UPA’s Pranab Mukherjee. It was an interesting choice, given that Sangma, as a former Congressman who later joined NCP and TMC, didn’t belong to the BJP fold. The key difference now, however, is that unlike in 2012, the BJP is comfortably placed to sail Murmu through to the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
In some ways, the party’s choice hasn’t been surprising. In recent years, its political messaging has been replete with picking low-profile candidates having a higher symbolic value of representative outreach. While the high office of president is a different case altogether, it reflects the party’s eagerness to be seen as offering high positions and responsibilities to leaders coming from its widening social base.
The changing demographic profile of its legislators, ministers and workers, with a greater share of marginalised social groups, has been subject to recent academic attention. Given this backdrop, Murmu’s nomination ticks many boxes for the party but also points to some immediate and long-term factors that could be considered.
First, there has been a realisation in the party that after decades of Sangh Parivar’s efforts in widening its base in the country’s tribal belts, through organisations like Akhil Bharatiya Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram, the BJP needed to positively reinforce its tribal ties with representation in the highest of offices. The presidential poll was a way to showcase this outreach.
The growth of the ABVKA – a Sangh Parivar affiliate founded in 1952 – since the late 70s has been one of the less noticed subtexts to the BJP’s successful forays into tribal regions, especially as a counter to the presence of Christian missionaries. In his recent work The New BJP, author Nalin Mehta has reflected on the ABVKA’s expansion from 1978 to 2020 and its various welfare and mobilisation initiatives as drivers of this growth. Mehta observes that by 2019, the organisation had scaled up its activities significantly; this included “initiating contact in 345 of India’s 727 districts in its online interactive management dashboard”. ABVKA eyes further extension, as it estimates 447 districts in the country have a tribal population. At present, the organisation is actively working in 52, 323 villages in 323 districts.
Additionally, some observers have talked about the party hoping for the positive signals the move could sway the tribal vote in upcoming state elections this year as well as next year. Gujarat is estimated to have 14.5 percent tribal population and Himachal around 5 percent – both go to polls at the end of the year. In Madhya Pradesh, it’s around 20 percent, and tribal votes are quite significant in Chhattisgarh and considerable in Rajasthan too – the three states will go to polls next year. While the facts may be right, the analysis misses the key point that voter mobilisation can’t rely on incidental factors like presidential candidates. The narrative of representative outreach seems more suited for larger identity-based mobilisation – designed to outlast immediate poll maths.
Third, there is also an element of pitching the presidential candidate in a way that would make it easy for non-NDA parties, mainly the regional parties, to support the NDA candidate. That’s also a consideration that could have carried some weight, even if the BJP is confident of a comfortable victory in the presidential race. Choosing a tribal woman sets a social justice pitch that would make it smoother for fence-sitting parties like the Biju Janata Dal and YSR Congress to explain their support for the NDA candidate. Even within the NDA, the candidature of Murmu has put to rest any doubt about the support of even sulking allies such as the Janata Dal-United, which can’t be taken for granted in the wake of a tense phase of alliance in Bihar,
To add to this, the BJP president has stated that this time the party was keen on a Rashtrapati Bhavan pick from eastern India. This might have a subtext of addressing a catchment area where the party isn’t only trying to answer grievances of representational deficit but also spawning its appeal. The fact that Murmu had seamless gubernatorial tenure at Raj Bhawan in Ranchi could also be seen as her being well versed with the constitutional niceties and formal syntax of protocols that high constitutional offices entail.
It has been more than 75 years since Jaipal Singh Munda made a forceful case for the rightful share of tribal communities in the public life of the Indian republic in making. While doing so, he had traced the ancestry of democratic ethos of the tribal way of life in India. Even if the subtext of BJP’s decision to field Droupadi Murmu is in line with the party’s representational outreach for wider social base, the new entrant to Rashtrapati Bhavan could hold high symbolic value for the tribal communities and the millions constituting them. In the event of her highly probable election, she could be expected to blend the inherent democratic temper of Indian tribes, something Jaipal took pride in, with the modern values of constitutional statesmanship that befits the highest office of the republic.
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