The office of the president is both ceremonial and diplomatic. Having a female president only for the second time in the history of independent India is a significant international statement
It’s careful business for the prime minister, who has the last word, to choose a presidential candidate in 2022. More so, with a desperately reduced Opposition, looking for a way back into the mainstream electoral game.
With BJP holding 48 per cent of the presidential votes before the contest begins, its newly announced choice, the 1958-born Droupadi Murmu, former Governor in Jharkhand, is more or less a shoo in.
Her candidature is likely to receive unstinted support from the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), for Murmu hails from Odisha. In fact, it has already been welcomed by Naveen Patnaik, its chief minister. Others, such as the YSR Congress (YSRC), have been sounded out, and are also likely to vote alongside the BJP.
The Opposition candidate, Yashwant Sinha, was prominent nearly two decades ago, during the Chandrashekhar and Vajpayee administrations, doing turns as Union finance minister, and also as external affairs minister.
Later, Sinha fell out with the Modi administration, quitting the party in 2018, when it did not consider the elderly politician for any role in the party or government. Emerging now from membership in the Trinamool Congress (TMC), The 84-year-old Sinha is doomed to probable failure. This, in the absence of sufficient numbers, to elect him, or indeed a truly united opposition.
Yashwant Sinha has name recognition on his side, and a virulent antipathy to the Modi administration to recommend him to the Opposition. If he were to win, on the unlikely off-chance, he would most certainly be an activist president, questioning many of the BJP/NDA government’s moves, even in the remaining time up to the 2024 general elections. And certainly beyond if the BJP/NDA wins.
However, no incumbent government can take kindly to an activist president, and nor is the constitutional office really designed for such high jinks. The president, at least in theory, is meant to be above party politics and serving in the best interests of the country. It is a vexatious matter however when these ‘interests’ are interpreted differently by the incumbent government and the president.
It has happened occasionally, taking the country to the brink of a constitutional crisis, for example in the tenure of president Zail Singh. He was in the Rashtrapati Bhavan during the time of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, over 35 years ago.
The Modi government will naturally do all in its power to negate such a possibility emanating from the new President.
The new president will be in office for five years till 2027. She will preside not only over the next general election in 2024, when BJP expects to win a third consecutive term, but witness many other changes. These include the functioning out of a new, enhanced Parliament building, built to accommodate more than 700 MPs. There will most likely be a slew of reformist legislation that could embrace the Uniform Civil Code and a Population Control Bill. And an expected major overhaul of the judiciary.
The Civil Service, the broader bureaucracy, the armed forces, and the digitisation of all parts of the government and economy, are expected to continue apace. The induction of 5G, 6G, and the effects of sweeping Aatmanirbhar policies in manufacturing and defence production, are all expected to be transformative. The massive infrastructure modernisation drive will show significant results beyond what we see today. Strong efforts to invite foreign investment into manufacturing in India will open up new and exciting possibilities in employment, business, industry, export and import.
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The rectification of a bias in education and curriculum is ongoing. The emphasis on reviving Hinduism, its Mandirs and places of pilgrimage will continue. The establishment of many more institutes of higher learning and research hospitals is transforming society. New diplomacy places India’s interests squarely in the unafraid centre.
The political agenda of a resurgent BJP will continue to make its presence felt in all things. It will roll back those aspects of the Nehruvian ethos which are not useful to India’s present or future.
The economy is being used as the most important tool to take India into the top three in the world. This president, who will be in office till 2027, will see the Indian GDP at $5 trillion with all the attendant benefits this will bestow on the people of India.
Other contentious laws, either partisan or flawed, such as the Right to Worship Act 1991, could be repealed.
The Opposition, already out of power for nearly 10 years, is increasingly given to using violence, rioting and protest to enforce a sort of street veto. This cannot be allowed to go on indefinitely. Both legislation and administrative measures will be used to curb such tactics in addition to firmer policing. The new president will experience all this during her tenure and play her part in the proceedings.
It is often stated by some that many of this government’s reforms threaten the Constitution, but it must perhaps be realised by such objectors that the Indian Constitution is a living document that can, and has been, amended several times over the years. More often than not, it has been amended by the previous Congress and UPA governments.
Even the bulldozers that are being used to demolish illegal encroachments and unauthorised construction in some states are unsuccessfully opposed on this basis in the courts.
Murmu, a seasoned BJP politician from Odisha, has been an elected MLA twice, in 2000, and again in 2009, winning from Rairangpur in Mayurbhanj district, both times on a BJP ticket. She held charge of the Commerce and Transport Ministry in the BJD-BJP coalition government and later held the Fisheries and Animal Husbandry portfolio. Most recently, she was the governor in Jharkhand, from 2015.
Murmu is well thought tribal leader, who started her working life as a teacher. Before becoming an MLA in Odisha, she was a councillor in the Rairangpur Nagar Panchayat, winning in 1997. Later she was president of the BJP’s Scheduled Tribes Morcha.
Looking into the crystal ball, it is conceivable that Droupadi Murmu’s elevation as President of India will enthuse the Odisha voter in favour of the BJP.
In addition, Droupadi Murmu’s presence in the Rashtrapati Bhavan, will, it is expected, bring more of the female and tribal vote to the BJP in multiple states. This could come in handy in short order, both in the various Assembly elections remaining in 2022 and 2023 and also in the general elections of 2024.
The ongoing political developments in Maharashtra, like an earlier but similar interaction in Karnataka, could again draw in the offices of the governor and the president. The political effort will attempt to change the government in power without going immediately for fresh elections.
Other post-election adjustments have occurred in states like Goa. In all this, the smooth handling of the constitutional offices overseen by outgoing President Ramnath Kovind played a low-key but effective part. This is expected to continue under president Murmu.
The office of the president is both ceremonial and diplomatic. Having a female president only for the second time in the history of independent India is a significant international statement. Within the country, it signals the inclusiveness of the present government in terms of the large tribal population around the country who have been exploited and neglected in the past.
Murmu’s own political track record suggests a deep commitment toward the poor and downtrodden. Murmu has experienced a deeply personal tragedy, losing her husband and two sons in the process. The fact that she was elected multiple times, in the Nagar Panchayat, and then again as MLA from the same place in Rairangpur, is a testament to her popularity and consistency.
India has once again, in this choice for the highest constitutional office in the land, cast its lot to demonstrate its commitment to diversity, gender equality, and cultural symbolism.
The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator. Views expressed are personal.
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