It’s useful to remember an episode that was once talked about but mostly escaped mention in the mainstream commentary on Droupadi Murmu’s presidential campaign.
Almost halfway through the campaign, political scientist James Manor recalled how in her gubernatorial stint in Jharkhand, Murmu had put her foot down on a bill drafted by the Raghubar Das-led BJP government in the state. As the governor, Murmu was of the view that the amendment undermined the rights of scheduled tribes while making their land available for commercial use.
Even when the state government could have resorted to constitutional provisions to blunt the governor’s refusal, it chose not to do so. And in the process of taking such a stand, with the limited elbow room of a largely ceremonial position, to voice the concerns of tribals gave a glimpse of Murmu’s role as the custodian of tribal interests. There was also a view that her independent decision-making at Raj Bhawan in Ranchi might have marred her chances to be the NDA’s choice for the 2017 presidential poll.
“She sent the bill back to the assembly with questions about how it could be seen as benefiting tribal welfare. This embarrassed the government in that tribal-dominated state, and the bill was dropped. At the time some analysts speculated that it contributed to her not being named the 2017 presidential nominee of the NDA. But as 2022 showed, it didn’t diminish the high regard in which she was and is held by PM Modi, and the BJP leadership,” Manor .
Analysts might have been off-mark in considering the display of her discretionary acumen as a factor behind being overlooked for the 2017 candidature. Though it’s highly probable that her predecessor Ram Nath Kovind ticked far more boxes as the NDA’s pick at the time.
But in 2022, Murmu was ticking most of those boxes, more so when seen as the successor to the broader subtext of political messaging: tribal leader from eastern India, addressing high office aspirations of a number of Sangh parivar affiliate bodies working in the tribal belt, and the push for building wider social coalition. An earlier on this portal has reflected on some of these factors.
Given this set of metrics, the glimpses of Murmu’s independent working style to secure tribal rights weren’t threatening but rather an ideal fit for BJP’s candidature pitch, firmly tied to tribal identity politics. Its symbolism was also seen as powerful in the year marking 75 years of India’s independence – the same landmark for the Indian republic to be attained three years later.
Moreover, it’s the unsure arithmetic of the coalition governments, clinging to a thin majority, that sometimes gives a decisive edge to presidential discretion. The present government, however, has been powered by strong majority mandates and isn’t prone to the instability that jittery coalition governments at the centre repeatedly faced in the last three decades. That isn’t to suggest that the current NDA dispensation can afford the risk of a more proactive Rashrapati Bhavan. It can’t, and moreover, it can’t be sure of how electoral numbers will shape up in the next Lok Sabha polls in 2024. But, the lesser vulnerability is more in terms of the significant shrinking of the rare but possible scenario when the government’s actions and survival need the helping hand of an agreeable Rashtrapati Bhavan.
By all means, the comfort of its present strength partly explains why the NDA government would be less anxious about such matters now. But that doesn’t mean it would risk losing sight of placing a safer option if the future doesn’t give it the same dominant numbers.
In the midst of such clues, the last two presidential polls have also shown that the BJP is wary of wasting the chances of larger political messaging and symbolism. In the process, it isn’t willing to let patronage politics dictate its choices for top constitutional offices, particularly the ones attracting high public visibility.
The party has avoided the practice of offering elevation to the ceremonial head of the state to party heavyweights who were unaccommodated in the power set-up or a usual line-up of loyalists considered close to the party leadership. The need to either reward or placate the loyal, aspiring or perilously bruised political egos hasn’t swayed the script for the presidential picks.
The party has been more keen on using such candidatures and their visibility as a means to weave a political narrative of identity politics and representation. It’s for the same reason that the BJP in its current form was less likely to squander such chances by giving an extended term to the incumbent president or elevating the vice-president to the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
But the same isn’t true for the vacancy in the vice-president’s office which would be filled through an election on August 6.
The NDA’s pick for the contest is former West Bengal governor Jagdeep Dhankhar. In choosing him, the party has mostly gone for a blend of two attributes that could come in handy in the immediate conduct of governance, legislation and floor management.
First, the vice-president is also the ex-officio chairman of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Parliament where the NDA’s numbers aren’t as comfortable as in the Lok Sabha. He combines his training as a lawyer of repute with experience in legislative processes. His ability to grasp and apply house rules could stand the government in good stead in the Rajya Sabha if the opposition resorts to disruptive tactics to halt important legislation or exert concerted pressure. In the party’s assessment, Dhankhar could be expected to confidently conduct the proceedings in the upper house with his understanding and exposure to the nuances of legislative process and house rules. These are some of the attributes that the party leadership had spotted before deciding to field the incumbent vice-president M Venkaiah Naidu in 2017.
Additionally, Dhankhar’s gubernatorial stint in West Bengal was often combative. His confrontation with the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress often saw him stand his ground on questions of constitutional dimensions, even if the ruling party machinery and the opposition made the duels politically abrasive. This could have been valuable training for someone set to preside over proceedings in a house where uproar and disruptions have become common as points of contention between the opposition and government holding on thin majority would only multiply in months to come. In some ways, Dhankhar’s initiatives in questioning the vindictive conduct of the TMC machinery against the BJP cadre also pitches his elevation as a reinforcement of his long struggle in the eastern state.
Clearly different sets of objectives have guided what the BJP had in mind while choosing to field Murmu and Dhankhar. While the former choice had a long-term subtext of identity politics messaging and reinforcement of the party’s drive for a wider and representative social base, the latter has got the nod for more immediate concerns and smoother legislative proceedings.
In blending its essential roadmap with the immediate goalposts, the BJP’s choices for the high constitutional offices show how the party is trying to navigate short-term concerns while keeping an eye on the organisation’s long-term landscape.
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