Mrs Draupadi Murmu has expectedly won the Presidential contest defeating Shri Yashwant Sinha with a heavy margin. A large number of individual members of non-NDA political parties supported her apart from the ruling parties in Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and Jharkhand which reflected the popular sentiment among them not to be seen as opposing the candidature of the first President of India hailing from an Adivasi community. Let us celebrate the extraordinary journey of Mrs Draupadi Murmu and congratulate her on becoming the first citizen of the country. Adivasis actually are our first citizens of this country and they have got the first right over our natural resources which they have protected so a right person at the right place needs to be applauded. Having said this, we all know, president’s post is ceremonial in nature and most of them might look non-political but remain so. We can’t expect Mrs Murmu going against the government which brought her into the Rashtrapati Bhavan but one expects that she will speak up on the critical issues where things might be wrong particularly the issues of the Adivasis, Dalits and other marginalised who are now becoming victim of the ‘developmental’ process. So, none wants her to stop projects but one expects her to question the unlawful eviction and protect the rights of the Adivasis in particular.
Let us discuss how the opposition parties failed in this entire process. Some of the comments made by the opposition leaders have been extremely disturbing. Yashwant Sinha said that there should not be any ‘rubber stamp’ in the Rashtrapati Bhavan while Tejasvi Yadav said that we don’t need a ‘murti’, a statue as our president. Just when Mrs Murmu was declared elected, Indranil Chatterjee, Kolkata based Deputy General Manager of India Today magazine wrote an extremely racist-casteist post saying he was old fashioned and didn’t want an Adivasi to rule us. His twitter post said,” Few chairs are not meant for “All” & have a dignity attached to them. Do we allow a sweeper to perform Durga Puja? Can a Hindu teach at a Madrasah? These are nothing but cheap socio-political gimmicks of the ruling party in creating a Rubber Stamp Constitutional Head, so that laws can be passed easily showing a middle finger to the Opposition parties”, said Indranil who was later dismissed by India Today group for his offensive post. Now these statement and posts actually suggest the absolute filthy casteist mindset which does not want to give the Dalit Adivasis a chance to participate in the power structure. When the ‘secular’ ‘liberal’ spaces remain dominated by feudal Brahmanical mindset then any outreach by the Hindutva towards the Dalit-Adivasis would be welcomed by the communities. It is not a matter how much margin she won and obviously it might be less than many other luminaries won but the circumstances this time was different and if the opposition had worked harder and with better coordination they would have given a better fight.
In fact, it was not really a contest and the opposition parties had already lost it when they fielded Yashwant Sinha, an import from BJP who felt he was the most suitable person for the country’s finance minister and whose tenure as finance minister is remembered by none. Sinha and many others like him became Modi critics only after they realise that they have lost all chances of getting back into the cabinet. The other such ‘great’ is Arun Shourie who is favourite of Lutiyen media as none of his eulogisers find time to ask about his own writings. While Shourie is an open critique of reservation policy, Sinha was in the opposition camp at that time when the Mandal report was being accepted and placed in parliament by the then prime minister V P Singh. Sinha’s hobnobbing with Ranvir Sena too is well known to be discussed here. Victory of Mrs Draupadi Murmu was a foregone conclusion but the margin shows how her candidature created division among the opposition camp. It was unfortunate that they could not field a strong candidate or should have opted for a consensus candidate after BJP had declared its candidate but the opposition actually wanted to score a point and embarrass BJP as Sinha was a prominent leader of the party but beyond media headline, it made nothing as in terms of politics Sinha’s elevation would have helped to none while Mrs Murmu’s entering into Rashtrapati Bhavan give the BJP and Sangh Parivar enormous strength and good will of the Adivasi community though it is also a fact that in the last 20 years adivasis have faced the biggest threat to their existence, natural resources, forest and water in the name of ‘nationalism’ and ‘development’. The Congress started the so-called ‘developmental’ process and BJP has accelerated it further.
Let us see the track record of some of those who occupied the Rashtrapati Bhavan and their relationship with the leader of those times. The first president Dr Rajendra Prasad had serious differences with Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru on various issues though they had a very healthy relationship since the days of their struggle together in the freedom movement. The fact is that Dr Rajendra Prasad was staunchly opposed to Hindu Code Bill along with many other members of the ruling party as well as Jan Sangh. Baba Saheb Ambedkar had worked on this bill day and night and drafted a bill which actually gave women in India their right to choice and freedom. Many of the luminaries of the ‘right’ with in the Congress as well as outside it actually called the bill as against our culture which would destroy the ‘family values’. Babu Rajendra Prasad participated in the inauguration of Somnath temple against the advice of the prime minister Jawahar Lal Nehru who felt that it would be wrong on his part to participate in such a religious function as a head of the state.
After Nehru’s demise, Indira Gandhi faced the biggest challenge in 1969 within the party, which threatened her leadership when fielded N. Sanjeeva Reddy. It was for the first time, perhaps in independent India’s history, that a prime minister opposed her party’s official candidate and supported V V Giri who contested as an independent candidate and defeated Reddy. But the real denigration and degradation of the presidential post actually happened afterwards. In August 1974, Mrs Indira Gandhi wanted a strong loyalist at the Raisina hills and it was Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed who became the president of India. It is said that when Mrs Indira Gandhi imposed emergency on 25th June’s night, the president signed on dotted line as the resolution that went to him was without any meeting of the cabinet. Despite an extremely impressive political career, Fakharuddin Ali Ahmed went down in the history of India as a complete ‘rubber stamp’ president. He passed away during his presidency which brought Neelam Sanjiva Reddy as next president of India who was elected unopposed. Between 1977-1982, Sanjiva Reddy had to deal with Morarji Desai, Charan Singh and Indira Gandhi as prime minister. In 1982, Indira Gandhi proposed the name of Giani Zail Singh, who was Union Home Minister that time and with Congress party’s massive majority and state under its control, he became the president of India. Many media organisations quoted Zail Singh as saying if Indira ji asks me to sweep the floor, then I will do it. We don’t know whether Zail Singh ever said or not but he was considered to be extremely loyal. First time, the privileged class or castes actually felt offended with his elevation to the presidential position because Giani ji came from an extremely humble background and was not an English speaker. On 31st October 1984 after the then prime minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated, Giani ji was abroad and cut short his trip and back to India. He then appointed Rajiv Gandhi as prime minister of India. Nobody questioned it but the fact remains Rajiv Gandhi’s elevation that time was without a formal meeting of either cabinet or Congress Parliamentary Party. In the din of nationalism nobody had the time to question it. The same Rajiv Gandhi after he returned to power with a massive mandate in 1985 started ignoring the President of India and not allowing Giani ji to visit abroad. Many of Giani ji’s trips were blocked by the prime minister’s office. The Prime Minister did not bother to meet the president after a foreign trip. Zail Singh was deeply pained and hurt but could do nothing but when Rajiv persisted with this policy, Giani Ji showed him the power of a traditional politician who might not have the sophistry of the words but enormous wisdom due to being an active ground level politician. It was for the first time in the history of independent India that a ‘down to earth’ politician president actually created an enormous crisis in the government particularly when Giani ji started consulting legal luminaries and political leaders about his ‘right to dismiss the prime minister’. The President was defining his right that prime minister and his cabinet work as long as they have the trust of the president and since Rajiv Gandhi was not reporting anything to the president, Giani ji felt that the prime minister has lost the trust of the president but thank to sagacity of leaders like VP Singh who was actually approached by Giani ji but declined to accept his offer and suggested not to do anything that become a model for anarchy in future. Good sense prevailed and Rajiv Gandhi too finally realised his mistake and somehow the relationship did not worsen further. It means a political person as president of India can strike at the moment whenever needed or may be when he runs out of tolerance.
Rajiv Gandhi had a massive mandate and he brought a former Congress person R Venkatraman into Rashtrapati Bhavan whose tenure was also tough as it saw fall of Congress government at the Center in 1989 and then two short term governments of V P Singh and Chandra Shekhar. Venkatraman was considered to be a copybook president. After Venkatraman, it was the turn of another Congress veteran from North India Shankar Dayal Sharma who was vice president of India prior to being elevated as president of India. Now, from the period of Shankar Dayal Sharma India had truly entered into an age of coalition era and hence consensus building was important. In 1997 United Front government led by Inder Kumar Gujaral which depended on the support of Congress party was actually looking for a ‘suitable’ presidential candidate. Till that time, Rashtrapati Bhavan was a domain of either Brahmins or elite Muslims. Congress had already made two Brahmin presidents and perhaps looking for the third. Suddenly, former Prime Minister V P Singh addressed a press conference and pushed the name of Dr K R Narayanan as the President of India. Narayanan was vice President then but his name was not being considered but VP’s timely campaign actually compelled political parties to agree on his name. In the presidential poll in July 1997, Narayanan got 95% of the total vote polled defeating T N Sheshan who contested against him. Narayanan was one of the finest presidents of India who redefined presidentship. He talked extremely sensibly and reminded the government time and again about their responsibilities. It did not sign on dotted lines and returned many bills for consideration again. K R Narayayan was therefore the true custodian of the constitution and people all over the country felt proud of him. Narayanan had raised the bar so high that BJP led NDA made a consensus in favour of APJ Abdul Kalam who they looked as an ‘ideal’ Muslim as well as thorough nationalist so Abdul Kalam became president in 2002. Kalam became extremely popular among the youngsters particularly students who would love to listen to his advice. The reasons were clear that through Kalam, BJP made inroads among the urban middle classes and they succeeded slowly in their efforts. In 2007 when UPA was in power, Congress President Sonia Gandhi gave preference to a family loyalist and extremely light weight Pratibha Patil who became the ‘first’ woman president of India. In 2012, UPA fielded Pranab Mukherjee because of various internal political compulsions. Mukherjee had always aspired to be the prime minister of India. He was an ‘expert’ of the parliamentary rules and procedures. In 2017, Narendra Modi led NDA made Ramnath Kovind as their candidate for the post of president. His Koli Dalit identity was used by the BJP during the Gujarat elections. Now, Smt Draupadi Murmu, a Santhal Adivasi from Mayurbhanj district of Odisha will be sworn in as our president.
Look at the difference between the Congress and BJP in their choice of president and I am not speaking about the Nehru era when there was still an inner party democracy in the party but the aftermath. Right from Indira Gandhi till UPA II, Congress preferred candidates picked up by the Gandhi family and its loyalists who did not bring anything to the party. Party gained nothing out of these as they were ‘political light weight’ and most of the people felt that they were made president because of family loyalty. Can anyone say that Pratibha Patil’s elevation as president of India helped Congress with women votes? What was her contribution to be at that position? It was extremely unfortunate that Congress could not bring its socialist-secular vision through presidential candidates. Even a lifelong Congressman and Nehruvian like K R Narayanan became Vice President and President of India because of a strong and timely campaign by V P Singh and his associates and not because of the Congress party. Pranab Mukherjee meant nothing for Congress and after he became president of India, he actually looked for a second term and did not utter a word against the Narendra Modi government which BJP was not keen to give him.
On the other side, BJP has used the identity of the presidents for building up a narrative that helped their party. Through APJ Abdul Kalam they send a message that the party likes ‘nationalist’ Muslims and will do everything to support them. Elevation of Abdul Kalam helped the party in the middle-class upper caste urban youngsters that it is different from Congress party where personal loyalty of the Gandhi family is the biggest merit of the person. Narendra Modi led BJP is keen on using every symbol that helps the party to gain extra votes. While Ramnath Kovind’s ascendency as president might not have given them much needed help in garnering Dalit votes but it helped at many places. Now, not opting for a consensus and making Mrs Draupadi Murmu as president of India, BJP has sent a message to the tribal and other communities that it cares for them. In a country where people look for ‘success’ stories and forget their own pains and suffering, Draupadi Murmu’s elevation will help the party in states like Jharkhand, Chhattishgarh, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh. It does not matter what the party is doing as in politics perception is important and BJP and Narendra Modi have actually outwitted opposition parties in the perception building. If you see the cast background of the candidates in the post 1987, Congress made R Venkat Raman, a Tamil Brahmin as president of India followed by a north Indian Brahmin Dr Shankar Dayal Sharma. In the two UPA term, it was Maratha-Rajput Pratibha Singh Patil and Bengali Brahmin Pranab Mukherjee contrary to BJP’s APJ Abdul Kalam followed by Ramnath Kovind, a Dalit and Draupadi Murmu, an Adivasi. The people know these things well but unfortunately the secular liberal ‘thinkers’ and ‘leaders’ in India could not go beyond their ‘casteless’ ‘classless’ fad ensuring that this space was pure domain of the Brahmanical elite.
It was therefore not shocking that when they started preaching that it was wrong for Mrs Draupadi Murmu to sweep the floor of a Shiva temple or her elevation is not going to the adivasis and so on. It means that Adivasis or Dalits have no right to come to top position for the fear of their inability to do anything. Why the same yardstick is not applied to the savarna leadership, after all somebody will have to be there as president of India. Nobody remembered that President Rajendra Prasad used to wash feet of the brahmins in the Rashtrapati Bhavan, much to the discomfort of prime minister Nehru. No secular critiqued Rajendra Prasad though some of the Cartoons of Shankar are being reflected these days but not much discussion among the upper caste leadership.
One can not ignore these jibes by the Brahmanical experts on Mrs Draupadi Murmu because they feel that ‘some posts are reserved for ruling castes’ which Rajendra Prasad, Radhakrishnan and Pranab Mukherjee occupied. Isn’t it shameful that we still have this kind of mindset who says that ‘sweepers’ can not be allowed to perform ‘puja’. This is the caste arrogance which comes out from the minds of ‘honest’ people. Most of the ‘experts’ are dishonest as they don’t speak what is debated inside their house. So Indranil Chatterjee felt he could get away with what he said and might get huge support. If the Congress had fielded it, he would have got huge support but Hindutva is working hard on these issues and hence Indranil was not only decried but lost his job too. Giani Jail Singh faced the same during his period when the same urban middle class mocked him but he remained one of the best dressed presidents of India who brought earthly wisdom in his speeches. They could not say the same about Dr K R Narayanan who would remind everyone about the legacy of Baba Saheb Ambedkar and Jawahar Lal Nehru through his brilliant articulations.
It is a fact that the Rashtrpati’s during the coalition governments were able to exercise more freedom in their work but then not everyone was like Dr K R Narayanan. Pratibha Patil and Pranab Mukhrjee did not stop anything during the UPA period and rarely went against the ruling party line. Same thing happened with Mr Ramnath Kovind whose five-year tenure is now coming to an end without much to remember. Let us see what Mrs Draupadi Murmu does and how she responds to situations when there is a crisis even when we know that there is a powerful government and president has limited powers but even then if she speak for the rights of the people particularly the marginalized communities, it will send a big signal. Let us not expect too much but it is equally important not to judge her before she has taken her oath. We can oppose her political affiliations but it is also a reality that practically the ruling parties ensure they have a president who is not in confrontation with the government. Politics is pragmatism and not too much idealism. Opposition parties have failed in utilising this opportunity as they should have allowed the BJP/NDA to declare the candidate and then negotiated with the government as in that condition they would not have faced the allegation of opposing the first Adivasi woman as president of India.
Vidya Bhushan Rawat is a social activist. Twitter @freetohumanity