The election of Droupadi Murmu as India’s 15th President is rich in symbolism. In the 75th year of the country’s Independence, Ms. Murmu becomes the second woman to occupy the Rashtrapati Bhavan, and the first member of a tribal community to do so. Her membership of the Santhal tribe is in focus. She has risen through the ranks in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and has shown a mind of her own during her stint as Governor of Jharkhand. Her election to the highest office of the country comes 101 years after two tribespeople were elected to legislative bodies in colonial India. Founding figures of the Republic were acutely cognisant of the disadvantageous position of the tribespeople and made special provisions such as the Fifth and Sixth Schedules of the Constitution. Jaipal Singh Munda, sportsman and tribal leader, was a prominent member of the Constituent Assembly who forcefully articulated the fears and hopes of tribespeople. In 2000, two States, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, were formed to give more focused attention to the concentrated tribal population in these regions. The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, was passed in 2006. Ms. Murmu’s election is a milestone in the journey of tribal empowerment, though she is by no means limited to her identity. It is a moment of pride for India.
For the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, this is a moment of political triumph over the Opposition. Paving the way for a tribal woman to succeed a Dalit in the highest office, Mr. Modi has shown yet again his capacity to constantly script invigorating politics by gauging the political aspirations of marginalised communities and enlisting them for Hindutva politics. Ms. Murmu’s elevation has elated tribespeople across the country, and this could convert into significant electoral gains for the BJP in the coming days. Her candidacy split the Opposition, as many members of the Shiv Sena and JMM supported her. Tribespeople have high expectations from Ms. Murmu’s rise to the top, but that could be realised only if the Modi government backs up its symbolism with substance. This is the right moment to pay attention to the concerns that many tribal activists have been raising — of a systematic erosion of protections accorded to tribals, harassment and suppression by the police, and a general intolerance of the state towards tribal autonomy. Ms. Murmu personally may have limited leeway in championing any political cause, but she has certainly become an inspiration for all disadvantaged sections of society — women, tribals and the poor in general. To make her election more meaningful, state policy too must bend towards justice and fairness to all. Ms. Murmu’s election should not be used as a convenient excuse for inaction on countering the wider disempowerment of tribespeople.