It is no secret that Droupadi Murmu, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) nominee for the July 18 Presidential election, was on the short list for the same in 2017 as well. The candidate herself acknowledged it when the BJP leadership announced that she was in the fray this year.
At that time, at the age of 59, she was considered to have time on her side. In 2022, the time seems to have arrived for a woman tribal candidate to occupy the highest office in the country, the beating heart of the Indian Republic, so to speak.
When she was born in 1958, in the district of Mayurbhanj in Odisha, there was nothing to foretell that she was headed to the Rashtrapati Bhavan. She was educated at the Unit II High School and Rama Devi College (now University), both in Bhubaneswar.
She went on to work as a junior assistant in the State Irrigation and Power Department from 1979 to 1983, and then as a teacher at Sri Aurobindo Integral Education Centre at Rairangpur till 1997.
It was during her stint in Rairangpur that she got interested in politics and joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In 1997, she was elected to the Rairangpur Corporation and became the Vice-Chairperson of the civic body.
Her political rise has since then been steady. It was a time when the BJP was in an alliance with the Naveen Patnaik-led Biju Janata Dal. In 2000, as the parties contested together, Ms. Murmu won her first Assembly election.
When the coalition came to power, she was chosen to be a Minister, first for Transport and Commerce and then for Fisheries and Animal Husbandry.
She was given independent charge, a rare responsibility for a first-time MLA. When the alliance between the BJP and the BJD ended, Ms. Murmu continued to nurture her constituency, Rairangpur, and despite a Naveen Patnaik wave in 2009, she managed to retain her seat.
But this was also the year that she suffered the loss of her 25-year-old son, which she later said in an interview plunged her into depression, and drew her close to spirituality.
The personal tragedies, however, were not to end. She lost her second son in 2013, and her husband, Shyam Charan Murmu, a bank official, in 2014, leaving her with her daughter, Itishree Murmu.
In 2015, Ms. Murmu was appointed Governor of Jharkhand. It was never an easy assignment for the occupant of the Raj Bhavan in Jharkhand, the State born out of a people’s struggle to foreground the political and social rights of tribal communities.
There were frequent changes of government and MLAs often switched loyalties. Ms. Murmu, however, created a record of being the first Governor to complete a full term and then served an an extra year before exiting the office in 2021.
When Ms. Murmu became Governor, there was a BJP government in Jharkhand. The Raghubar Das-led government brought in two Bills to amend the Chota Nagpur Tenancy Act, 1908, and the Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act, 1949. These amendments related to allowing conversion of land use in tribal areas from agriculture to commercial purposes, and set off a major uproar among tribal groups and civil society.
These Acts were articles of faith in the battle for land rights and rights over natural resources for tribal communities, fought and won in the teeth of opposition and against the British colonial rule. To amend these Acts was akin to a reversal of any gains made by tribal people in terms of land rights.
Ms. Murmu as Governor, someone constitutionally empowered to intervene in issues related to scheduled areas, soon intervened and rejected the two Bills when they were presented to her, an act which won her approbation from the Opposition, with current Chief Minister Hemant Soren lauding her for her “sensitivity” for “providing a balm to society that was on the boil for the last six months”.
When the government changed in Jharkhand in 2019, Mr. Soren and Ms. Murmu managed a good working relationship. Ironically, Mr. Soren is part of the Opposition grouping, which has announced former Yashwant Sinha, a former Finance Minister (in the Vajpayee-led NDA government) as its presidential candidate.
The distance travelled by Ms. Murmu, from Rairangpur to the Raisina Hills, is akin to the lonely, tough furrow ploughed by tribal communities in India, who, despite being at the forefront of India’s struggles against the British colonial rule, had to wait till the Republic’s 75th anniversary to get its shot at the top job.