The new President can play a notable role in promoting an equitable and socially inclusive India.
In Smt. Droupadi Murmu, India has made an inspiring choice of President for the country. A self-made lady, the 64-year-old Adivasi (aborigine) is the first person with such a background to grace the high office. Her modest upbringing notwithstanding, she brings to the job valuable experience in public service, especially at the grassroots level. The unfortunate spell of personal tragedies faced by her between 2009 and 2016—a period where she lost both of her young sons, her grieving husband, mother, and a brother—is, God-willing, behind her. Her resilience and determination to excel has been demonstrated in her past responsibilities as a legislator, a minister in her home state of Odisha, and her role as Governor of the resource-rich Jharkhand.
At her swearing-in last Monday as the First Citizen, the new President spoke eloquently about tribal legacy, the marginalized and downtrodden, education for girls, and environment cum ecology. Understandably, expectations from her as the 15th Head of State stand elevated. Much of the public consider the President’s public role titular and ceremonial. The less perceptive amongst them term it a sinecure bestowed upon a person retiring from active public life. The incumbents in this phase of their life are viewed as the ones who routinely endorse the recommendations and viewpoints of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. Adoption of such an attitude to official responsibilities, unfortunately, is prevalent even though the extant scheme of things, especially the Constitution of India, permits certain discretion being exercised by the office-holder. Given her track record and that she is the youngest to move into the Rashtrapati Bhavan, President Murmu can be expected to buck the trend and demonstrate she has a mind of her own.
Nowhere was this better revealed than in her six-year term as the Governor of Jharkhand between 2015 and 2021. Though herself a committed BJP party-person prior to moving into this assignment, she had chosen to withhold consent to two official Bills piloted by the BJP-led government of the state and which had been duly passed by the state-legislature. The amendments in the Chhota Nagpur Tenancy Act and the Santhal Parganas Tenancy Act had sought allowance for the provincial government to take over the traditionally held tribal lands for commercial usage and infrastructure. The original laws had allowed transactions only amongst the tribals. By not according the requisite gubernatorial assent to these regressive social and economic proposals, she brought to bear upon the government her deep understanding of the history and psyche of the tribals of the region. Attempts such as these had given rise to the Pathalgarhi movement of 2017-18 where tribals had banned plainspeople from entering forest areas by erecting physical barriers (an act for which they subsequently faced stringent police action). The government ultimately relented and withdrew both the Bills. Through her actions, the Governor was instrumental in conveying a strong public message that the Adivasis were the original inhabitants of these lands.
In such circumstances, contemporary Governors of other provinces would usually have reserved the matter for the consideration of the President, and referred it to the Union Government. As Governor, Droupadi Murmu instead chose the courageous path by taking an upfront position herself and holding back her assent. In another subsequent matter, she had advised Hemant Soren, the current tribal Chief Minister and the leader of the popular Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), to desist from diluting the composition of the Tribal Advisory Council. Again, that advice was well taken, and government withdrew the intended changes.
Her appreciation of the Constitutional checks and balances in the role of a Governor and her willingness to not shy away from exercising these, can be expected to remain intact, particularly in matters she feels strongly about. Given her political leaning, as President she would undoubtedly exercise thoughtfulness and constitutional propriety in pushing forward her concerns. Nevertheless, she would ensure that the country’s collective conscience is evoked to give tribal communities more than they have previously received from the Indian state. The ruling NDA, and BJP in particular, are unlikely to object to her proactive role in promoting the welfare of the poor, especially the Adivasis. They stand to gain electorally—from nominating a tribal as their candidate and more importantly, thereafter, by letting her “reign” in fields that hold the promise of political advantage to them in the 2024 general elections.
Beyond political implications, as a person with a deep understanding of tribal identity and the vital role played by land and forest as factors of production in the lives of Adivasis, Mrs Murmu’s strident defence of their legitimate rights should stand the country in good stead. As a reminder, the tribal population in 2011 constituted 8.6% of India’s population, or approximately 104mn persons. 47 parliamentary and 554 legislative constituencies have a preponderance of tribal voters, with most in Odisha, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan. However, they continue to languish, both relative to other groups (including the Scheduled Castes) and in absolute terms.
It has perhaps been rightly said that “while Dalits have had a long record of assertion and a major role in shaping our public life, the tribals have been more seen than heard” (Mint, 26 July 2022). Several social scholars have described the prevailing hands-off stance as “too neglectful in its benign neglect” and urged the State to draw the forest dweller Adivasis out of isolation by providing education and access to public goods on offer.
The urgency to make our development narrative mainstream through tribals’ greater assimilation is corroborated on several fronts. The literacy rate amongst tribals has remained notably lower than the all-India rate over the last 75 years. Though it improved from 8.53% in 1961 to 59% in 2011, that compares poorly with the country figure of 73%. The question about the appropriateness of the education imparted to them also stands out. What is more worrisome is the dropout rates in school education for Scheduled Tribe students—32% in Classes I-IV, 50% for I-VIII, and 63% through I-X. The non-return rate after long vacations and absence of tribal girls in the higher classes is significant. The President’s concern about girls’ education flowed out of such a dismal position. Interestingly, in 1974, she was the first woman in her village to have ever passed high school. Not surprisingly, she had briefly enrolled as a school teacher. More recently, after several family-bereavements, she chose to set up a rural residential school for tribal children in memory of her two late sons and husband.
Besides focusing on education, particularly at school level, President Murmu is likely to prod the governments—both at the Centre and in the states—to pay greater attention to healthcare. The background for this again stems from the reality that health coverage, including primary care, remains woefully inadequate in rural India despite the tremendous global improvements in medical science and their application. The position is worse in Adivasi villages and their other settlements. Their health parameters remain way behind the national averages in mother and child healthcare (MCH), nutrition as well as infant mortality. The tribal average life span is lower despite the all-round improvements effected. The Ayushman Bharat mission, which prides on its universal health insurance component, has not succeeded in bridging the gap. The solution does not seem to lie in blindly promoting western modes and medication. It is, perhaps, more in modernizing the traditional ways of treatment, both preventive and curative. Such medicine has played an important role for centuries in the lives of Adivasis, and optimizing its usage could be a more reliant way of addressing the prevailing skewness.
Women empowerment has hitherto been more of a slogan than a serious work at hand. In the international gender index reported in the Global Gender Gap Report brought out by the World Economic Forum, India’s ranking has remained close to the bottom—a dismal 135th out of 140 countries in 2022, and 140th out of 156 in 2021. Worse still, India has made little progress on any of the four important parameters determining the rankings. This is despite our having had a lady Prime Minister for over a decade, a lady President for a five-year term, and a lady being the leader of the erstwhile dominant Congress Party for 20 odd years. Yet, amending the electoral laws or the Constitution of India to reserve a third of the legislature and parliamentary seats for women (now constituting over 50% of the population) has not seen traction for decades together. Politicians of all hues and colours promise in the run-ups to elections to support such legislations but only to conveniently forget these soon after. A significant achievement of Madam President would be to frequently remind them and the nation in general, that henceforth such lip service be supplemented by more material and ground action. Ever since the initiation of reservation of seats for women at the panchayat and municipal levels, a perceptive change in the priorities and programme-implementation of most such democratic institutions has been recorded.
A recent study by the International Institute of Population Studies, Mumbai has revealed another interesting area to shine a spotlight. Based on data compiled by the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) in the last three rounds between 2005-06 and 2019-20, it has concluded that polygamy continues to be more common amongst Scheduled Tribes than any other caste. The list of 40 districts with the highest polygamy has a preponderance of tribal districts with a high of 20% in East Jaintia Hill district in Meghalaya to Anuppur in Madhya Pradesh at the 40th place with 3.9%. In terms of states, the proportion of women reporting polygamy ranged from 6.1% in Meghalaya to 2% in Tripura (the national average by 2019-20 had declined to 1.4% from 1.9% in 2005-06). The Southern states and those in the East viz. Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha and West Bengal have significantly higher level of polygamy than the northern states. The study also highlighted that polygamous marriages were more prevalent among certain sections that include the poorest women, women with no formal education, women who marry young, and older women aged 35 years and above. Mitigating the prevalence of this social practice would necessarily involve better education of girls, as well as greater financial and social independence of women, both of which are the bedrock of women empowerment goals talked of by Rashtrapati Murmu.
At the end of the day, the million-dollar question is that given the Constitutional provisions, whether it is possible for the new President or for that matter any other President to play a more proactive role and pursue an agenda of action. In almost all matters of state, the President is required to go by the recommendations of the Council of Ministers and does not have much discretion. Having said that, it is worth recalling the power of withholding assent to Bills approved by Parliament, as was demonstrated by Droupadi Murmu as the Governor of Jharkhand. A small handful of the past 14 Presidents, beginning with Dr Rajendra Prasad, had also expressed reservations on certain legislative proposals on grounds of not representing the wider public interest. Leverage in the President’s role is also available in the constitutional provision for the President to advise the Prime Minister on matters, and for the latter to keep the Rashtrapati informed on important domestic and international developments. Calling on the President after a foreign visit by the PM has been a custom since the inception of the Republic.
Finally, no government would like to have the President go public with their opinion or stand on a public matter of consequence. This is all the more true if the incumbent of the office enjoys a degree of public endorsement, an advantage which Mrs Murmu brings due to her past record. Perhaps, needless to recall that Presidents also have the constitutionally granted power to periodically invite a party person to form and head the Union Cabinet. While its exercise is undoubtedly circumscribed by the outcome of the national elections, in cases of close political contests, there arises an element of subjectivity. That possibility does weigh on the minds of the leaders aspiring to re-stand and be the heads of the government again.
Dr Ajay Dua, a frequent writer on public policy, is a former Union Secretary.