(The article was originally published by Indian Express on July 21, 2022. Views expressed are personal.)
There is much to celebrate in the election of Droupadi Murmu as the 15th President of India in the Amrit Mahotsav year of independence. In Murmu, the country not only has a Santhal tribal woman as the head of the state but also a leader from one of the country’s poorest regions. Her rise from the tribal lands of western Odisha to become the first citizen is a glowing tribute to the success of Indian democracy.
Murmu brings with her rich experience in public life. She is a well-educated woman from the family of a village headman. As a teacher and, later, as a people’s representative — first as a councillor in the local municipal body and subsequently as a legislator and minister in the Odisha government — Murmu had brought development to a relatively backward region. She had also won the best performing legislator award.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s knack for spotting people with unique credentials helped Murmu become the first woman governor of Jharkhand in 2015. Her tenure as the governor of an Opposition-led state was non-controversial, earning her the goodwill and support of the ruling party in the state, the JMM, in the presidential election.
In India’s constitutional history of seven decades, there were a couple of occasions, mostly in the first couple of decades, when Presidents were elected unanimously. But if there was any other presidential contest that deserved consensus, it was Murmu’s election. In any case, the odds were very much against the Opposition candidate, Yashwant Sinha. Had the Opposition demonstrated maturity, and had Sinha withdrawn from the contest even at the last minute, especially after several of the Opposition parties including the JMM, Akali Dal and Shiv Sena extended support to Murmu’s candidature, it would have not only enhanced the prestige of the Opposition but also helped to improve the political climate in the country.
We are living in an era of extreme political rivalry. We ended social untouchability in the country but have invented a new form of political untouchability. The days when a Vajpayee and a Nehru would praise each other, or a Vajpayee and a Narasimha Rao shared a healthy banter are fond memories now. At a town hall event during the 2008 US presidential election, when a Republican supporter made objectionable comments about Barack Obama, claiming that he was a Muslim and hence America was not safe in his hands, the Republican nominee, John McCain interjected and categorically told him that Obama was a decent man and America would be absolutely safe in his hands. That kind of sagacity is missing in the political discourse globally now.
Unfortunately, the discourse during the run-up to the presidential election in India was vicious. Presidential elections were cordial and low-profile events in the past. In 1967, Zakir Husain was the presidential candidate from the ruling party. The Opposition had fielded Koka Subba Rao, a retired Chief Justice of India. There was no campaign from either side. In fact, Zakir Husain was at the Michigan University delivering the convocation address until three days before the election. When asked about the campaign, Zakir saab quipped: “We in India only stand, and do not run.”
But the presidential elections today are no less hectic and politically charged than the general elections. While Murmu maintained a dignified and low-profile campaign, the Opposition went ballistic from day one. Efforts were made to project the NDA candidate as someone who could not speak for herself — she was called a “murti” (statue) — and it was suggested that she would be a rubber-stamp. If anything, it displayed the innate classist temperament that continues to prevail in some sections of our society.
In his final address to the Constituent Assembly on November 26, 1949, the chairman, Rajendra Prasad, who later became the first President of India, called this mindset “sophisticated” when some members expressed doubts over the ability of Indian masses to use the right of franchise diligently. “Some people have doubted the wisdom of adult franchise… In my opinion, our village people possess intelligence and common sense. They also have a culture which the sophisticated people of today may not appreciate, but which is solid,” he said.
It is another matter that the President of India is not equal in powers to the President of America although the same nomenclature was adopted. Both B R Ambedkar and Rajendra Prasad have clarified that it was more on the lines of the British monarch. Although the President is elected through an electoral college, he or she is a “Constitutional President”, Rajendra Prasad had explained.
All the Presidents of India have understood the constitutional position and conducted themselves in office with great dignity and decorum. There were occasions when Presidents had acted as per their conscience but never violated the constitutional limits imposed on them. Rajendra Prasad’s famous correspondence with Nehru where he disagreed with several aspects of the Hindu Code Bill is reference material for students of constitutional studies. Sadly, in the Opposition’s criticism of Murmu, one finds the desire for a “confrontational” President rather than a constitutional one.
Murmu’s election will naturally make millions of tribals of India happy and truly empowered. But the real success of our democracy is when she is looked at as not merely a “tribal President” but the President of the 1.3 billion people-strong Republic of India. For her election to symbolise the bridging of the gap between the first and last citizens of our republic, people should celebrate the occasion by installing her picture in every public space.