ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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A President of Presence?

India’s first tribal president reveals the potentials as well as pitfalls of representative democracy.

Droupadi Murmu has been elected as the 15th President of India after serving as the governor of Jharkhand from 2015 to 2021. Murmu’s appointment is remarkable especially against the backdrop of the varied background of her predecessors who occupied the topmost constitutional office in the country. Although it may be argued that the post of the president has always been ceremonial and lacking in effective political power, one nonetheless notices the element of a tremendous social and political churning behind the election of Murmu as India’s youngest president. It is primarily because Murmu will be the first person from the Scheduled Tribe (ST) community to ever hold the post of the President of independent India. More­over, her rise from extremely struggle-ridden conditions to the pinnacle of constitutional authority in India is sure to receive national and international attention and accolades.

President Murmu’s election also paints a grim picture of the political acumen of the opposition parties in India. The mere announcement of Murmu as the National Democratic Alliance government’s presidential candidate sparked a much-needed debate about the socio-economic and political disenfranchisement of Adivasis in India where all political parties—especially the Congress—came under the radar for not giving the Adivasi community their due in the affairs of national politics. The opposition parties could have exercised their political imagination and adhered to the norm of political representation in choosing their presidential candidate. Such a gesture—even when they lacked the necessary numbers in both the houses of Parliament—would have revealed their commitment towards reclaiming their fast-shrinking social and electoral base among the Scheduled Castes and the STs. Identities matter in a pluralistic nation like India; it speaks to the lively paradox of Indian politics that the Bharatiya Janata Party can now take credit for having given the country a Muslim, a Dalit, and an Adivasi president each.

Moreover, President Murmu’s election has also been seen as historic, particularly in a context where the Adivasis have felt a definite sense of alienation and literal displacement in the colonial and postcolonial exercises of resource extraction and economic development. The Santhals—the indigenous community that the President belongs to—also had an active role to play in several insurgencies and revolts in the colonial period. President Murmu has expressed that her election is a belated recognition of the contributions of Santhals and other STs in the nation-building process.

Given the continued marginalisation, exploitation, and disenfranchisement of the Adivasis in contemporary India, one also needs to take a broader view regarding the portrayal of President Murmu as an “Adivasi president.” In the scholarly debates about the concept of political representation, scholars have made a normative distinction between the “politics of ideas” and the “politics of presence.” While the former refers to the professed goals, ideologies, and beliefs of political candidates, the latter refers to the identities of the candidates that may exist on a spectrum consisting of over- and under-represented identities. Taking a cue from this distinction, one may observe that the mainstream media did elaborately comment on the identity and biography of President Murmu—from her humble socio-economic origins to her tragic familial loss. The meanings and implications of Murmu’s potential “presence” in the presidential office have been made a subject of intense debate. However, one has heard little about the goals, ideologies, and beliefs that animate the political imagination of India’s new President. The element of the “politics of ideas” in the debate about representation that ensued after President Murmu’s election largely seems to have taken a backseat.

Another problem with such claims of representativeness is the capability or propensity of a given candidate to contribute to the welfare of the community that they represent. Put differently, an Adivasi president will be (justifiably) questioned about their commitment to the well-being of Adivasis, just as the previous President was questioned about his commitment to the well-being of Dalits. The burden of the peculiar style of representative politics practised in India is that the responsibility of the welfare of extremely marginalised communities is inadvertently made to fall on the shoulders of only such leaders who politically represent them. Whether such expectations are fair in a context where power accrues more towards the political “presence” of such representatives rather than their political “ideas” is a question that is worth considering in light of President Murmu’s election.

Nevertheless, key precedents from her own stint as the governor of Jharkhand as well as from India’s presidential history offer a ray of hope with regard to the President’s role in fostering a non-partisan commitment towards the constitutional values and norms. The President is also vested with certain discretionary powers by the Constitution that can have the effect of making the ruling government reconsider the constitutional merits of its legislations, thus giving the President the crucial responsibility of safeguarding the constitutional spirit of parliamentary democracy itself. Only time will tell whether President Murmu’s presence in the Rashtrapati Bhavan will, in any substantial sense, reverse the current government’s zeal to erode the constitutional foundations of Indian democracy.


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Updated On : 13th Aug, 2022
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