The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and National Democratic Alliance (NDA) have nominated Draupadi Murmu as their candidate for the presidential polls. The opposition has fielded former union minister Yashwant Sinha as its nominee. At present, it seems likely that Murmu will become the first Adivasi president of India. Before going on to the implications of this development and its sociopolitical fallout, here is a recap of the recent developments.
The Enforcement Directorate (ED) questioned Congress leader Rahul Gandhi for 50-60 hours over five days. A summons was also sent to the party president Sonia Gandhi. The case pertains to the newspaper National Herald. It is well known that National Herald was the organ of the Congress party. The newspaper was launched by Jawaharlal Nehru during the Freedom Struggle. The publication of National Herald, along with Navjivan in Hindi and Quami Awaz in Urdu, continued after Independence. The newspapers sustained heavy losses and were shut down in 2008. Rahul Gandhi played a key role in their resurrection. The issues involved in the case are entirely technical. No one, with any degree of certainty, can say that any individual or organization gained monetarily from the transactions made for reviving the publications. Yes, sometimes people do move funds from one place to another on the advice of lawyers and chartered accountants. The pattern followed for this is dictated purely by commercial considerations. Whether you see these transactions as right or wrong depends on which side of the fence you are.
Congress workers took to the streets to protest the ED action. But besides Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and its leader M.K. Stalin no party or leader of consequence condemned the government for misusing ED and other government agencies to hound the opposition. This is very sad. It was as clear as daylight that the ED summonses were meant to harass Sonia and Rahul with a view to either disintegrating the party or at least silencing the duo before the presidential elections. Meanwhile, without any prior discussions, Mamata Banerjee convened a conclave of opposition parties for selecting their joint candidate. Till then, Mamata hadn’t said a word against Rahul Gandhi’s harassment by the ED. Initially, Mamata tried to convince Sharad Pawar to contest the elections. However, Pawar, known for playing safe, refused. Then, Mamata proposed Farooq Abdullah and Gopal Krishna Gandhi. These proposals were made without trying to evolve a consensus. Both of them refused.
Thus the 20-party United Progressive Alliance (UPA), having failed to find a joint candidate, lost the very first round. However, Mamata refused to learn a lesson. The Congress was busy fighting its own battle and Mamata was keen to use the opportunity to bring her party to the fore. She asked her own party vice-president Yashwant Sinha to resign from the party post and contest the presidential elections. Sinha happily accepted the offer.
The Congress sent Jairam Ramesh and Mallikarjun Kharge as its representatives to the all-party meeting called by Mamata Banerjee. They agreed on Sinha’s candidature. The Congress, already in a spot with Rahul Gandhi facing questioning by ED, was not inclined to push another name.
On the other hand, the BJP outsmarted its opponents. Picking Draupadi Murmu, a Santhal Adivasi, as its candidate for president was a deft political move. Those opposing her would have to pay a heavy price. BJP managed to bring two opposition stalwarts – Naveen Patnaik from Odisha and Jaganmohan Reddy from Andhra Pradesh – to its side. Other non-NDA parties would also find it difficult to oppose Murmu. It is for the first time that an Adivasi and that too, a woman, stands a fair chance of becoming the President of India. Murmu’s candidature is symbolically important. And its significance cannot be diminished by asking what Murmu would do for the Adivasis, if elected. For instance, in Jharkhand, it would be difficult for Hemant Soren to oppose her because as the governor of that state Murmu had refused to sign a bill seeking to amend the Chota Nagpur Tenancy Act 1908. The then chief minister Raghubar Das was trying to dilute the Act, which protects the forest rights of the Adivasis. There was stiff opposition to the move in Jharkhand and ultimately, the governor sent the bill back without her signature.
Many are raising the issue of Murmu sweeping the floor of a Shiva temple. It is common knowledge that politicians do these things to gain political mileage. Can we forget former president Giani Zail Singh dusting the shoes of the pilgrims at the Golden Temple as an act of penance after the Akal Takht pronounced him a Tankhaiya (guilty of religious misconduct)? It is said that the first president Dr Rajendra Prasad had invited Brahmins to the Rashtrapati Bhavan and washed their feet. At the time, the Brahmins did not question him. It is my personal opinion that nothing would be gained by questioning her personal beliefs. Of course, we do hope that Draupadi Murmu would keep her personal beliefs strictly personal. But even this is too much to expect in these times; when everything is being politicized, there is no reason why the ruling party would not market her religious values.
You can’t claim that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) or the BJP are associating themselves with the Adivasis for the first time. They have been working among the Adivasis for years. Today, they are in power and that has expanded their reach greatly. But they are still not satisfied. The BJP wants to cement its ties with the Adivasis for long-term political gains. Adivasis have a sizeable presence in states like Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Maharashtra, Telangana, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. President Ram Nath Kovind had undertaken many tours of Uttar Pradesh and that did benefit the BJP in the assembly elections in the state held this year. Kovind’s influence was limited because the Dalits in UP were already politically conscious. However, the Adivasis are different. The level of political consciousness among them is much lower than among the Dalits.
While the BJP and the NDA have gained an advantage by picking Murmu, the opposition seems to have made a disastrous move by choosing Yashwant Sinha. It could have found a better candidate. There is little doubt that Sinha is a consummate politician. He was initiated into politics by Chandra Shekhar but Sinha managed to forge good relations with the top leadership of the BJP. He needed the BJP. During the Mandal era, when V.P. Singh was prime minister, Yashwant Sinha was in the opposition camp. A problem that Sinha has is that he has exaggerated ideas about his own standing and competence. He is an arrogant Savarna leader. He was the finance minister in the short-lived Chandra Shekhar government. Later, Atal Bihari Vajpayee inducted him into his ministry, again as finance minister.
Yashwant Sinha never severed his relations with the RSS. Like Arun Shourie, he was hopeful that Modi would accommodate him in his government. But that did not happen. He quit the BJP and turned a Modi critic overnight. It should also be noted that his son Jayant Sinha is still an important functionary in the BJP organizational set-up and was also a minister in the Modi Cabinet from 2014 to 2019.
Be that as it may, the opposition parties should have handled the issue of presidential elections with more seriousness and maturity. Apparently, the opposition camp is paying the price for Mamata Banerjee’s ambition to become the pivot of opposition unity. Initially, the opposition had the numbers but now it is clear that Yashwant Sinha won’t even get the votes of all the opposition parties because regional parties will think twice before backing him. Had Sinha done something to benefit the Dalits and Adivasis, the opposition would have had some ammunition. But given his track record, Sinha, I am afraid, has very few real friends.
(Translation: Amrish Herdenia; copy-editing: Anil)
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