NEW DELHI: India elected on Thursday a female politician from a tribal community as its new president, giving new visibility to a substantial minority group that has long been marginalized.
Droupadi Murmu, 64, a member of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party from the eastern state of Odisha, belongs to the Santhal tribe, one of the largest of India’s roughly 700 recognized tribes, which make up about 9 percent of the country’s more than 1.4 billion population.
Modi took to social media to announce Murmu’s win, as election commission results showed that she had secured a majority of the votes cast by lawmakers from both houses of the parliament and the legislative assemblies of each of India’s states and territories.
“Congratulations to Smt. Droupadi Murmu Ji on this feat,” the prime minister said in a Twitter post.
“India scripts history. At a time when 1.3 billion Indians are marking Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav, a daughter of India hailing from a tribal community born in a remote part of eastern India has been elected our President!”
Murmu is the second woman after Pratibha Devisingh Patil to serve as Indian president and will take over from incumbent President Ram Nath Kovind, whose term expires on July 25.
She competed for the post with opposition candidate Yashwant Sinha, who was a senior BJP leader before he left the party in 2018, following a divergence with Modi on economic issues. Sinha, 84, had served as the country’s finance minister during the previous BJP government from 1998 to 2002, and as the foreign minister between 2002 and 2004.
Murmu’s presence in the presidential role has been expected to boost the BJP’s efforts to win tribal voters in state elections in Gujarat this year, and in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh next year. The four states account for nearly a half of India’s tribal population.
But for Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a Delhi-based writer and analyst specialized in Hindu nationalist politics, the victory will not necessarily translate into electoral gains.
“Her victory is not significant for the tribals of the country. It is tokenism,” he told Arab News. “It’s not a game-changer for Modi. It puts opposition parties in lots of difficulties because it enabled the BJP to say that you are not supporting a tribal woman who faced an upper-caste Hindu man, Yashwant Sinha, as her opponent. But beyond that it is not going to help Modi.”
Mukhopadhyay was also skeptical about the impact Murmu’s presidency will have on tribal communities, which belong to the lowest strata of India’s caste hierarchy, as the Indian presidency is a largely ceremonial post because all executive authority is held by the prime minister.
“It will really not help them in improving their lot,” Mukhopadhyay said. “We have seen that in the last five years that the state of marginalized people remained the same.”
The Indian presidency is a ceremonial role. The primary duty of the Indian president is to preserve the constitution, appoint the chief justice or attorney general. The president is also the supreme commander of the Indian Armed Forces, and can declare war or conclude peace.