B eyond mere optics

Updated on: Jun 22, 2022

The selection of Droupadi Murmu for the President’s post sends a powerful and positive message

The ruling NDA’s choice of Droupadi Murmu as the first tribal woman to become India’s President is a powerful symbolic message in the 75 thyear of Independence. Coming as it does after President Ram Nath Kovind’s tenure as the second Dalit (after the late KR Narayanan) in the highest Constitutional office, the selection of a tribal woman from Odisha’s Mayurbhanj district is heartening on a different register. Given the NDA’s clear edge in the electoral college, Murmu is only the second woman and the first tribal to have a real shot at the highest office in the Republic. Cynics would point to the BJP’s electoral calculations behind the move — its positioning as an inclusive political vehicle with a clear outreach towards the marginalised sections, expansion from the party’s Hindi heartland core base, the obvious consolidation of votes in about 40 tribal-dominated seats in the Presidential aspirant’s home state where the BJP is already the principal opposition party, among other factors. But the broader message is this: Murmu’s candidature represents democracy at work, signifying equality of opportunity to all to contest for political office. It is doubly cynical to suggest that representation of disadvantaged communities does not matter, or that it amounts to mere optics. In terms of representation in high office, India perhaps fares better than even the US. The poignant appeal of a woman who has battled social adversity, regional backwardness and grave personal trauma to rise through the ranks shines through.

The powerful symbolic import of this gesture becomes all the more evident in view of women’s poor representation in Parliament and state legislatures. Despite the share of women legislators in the Lok Sabha peaking at 14.39 per cent after the last general elections, India is still worse than 140 countries in the representation of women in Parliament. The global average for the share of women parliamentarians is 24.6 per cent. The situation is worse in state legislatures where their number drops to 9 per cent on an average. All attempts to reverse this trend have been ineffective with the Bill to reserve 33 per cent of seats for women in Parliament and state legislatures still being blocked in both the Houses. With these reforms having been systematically undermined, it bears mention that women’s political inclusion is critical to challenging unequal power structures and relations that undermine their participation in policy and decision-making. What election of a Droupadi Murmu to the highest Constitutional office or the presence of two women Ministers in the Cabinet Committee on Security, as in the last tenure of the BJP-led NDA Government, manages to establish is the normalisation of women in high office. This lays the ground for structural reforms to facilitate the process.

Lastly, the BJP’s choice showcases the fatigue and absence of creativity in the Opposition’s selection. Although it is desirable to have bipartisan consensus in the election for the top Constitutional post, the Opposition could have thought more creatively a la the projection of Lakshmi Sahgal by the Left-led front in the 2002 presidential poll if at all it wanted to contest this. In the absence of such imagination, the election of Droupadi Murmu is a no-contest in more ways than one.

Published on June 22, 2022
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