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The oath of the office to President-elect Droupadi Murmu

In the recent Presidential Election, Droupadi Murmu was elected as the 15th President of the Indian Republic. Many politicians, social commentators, and journalists among others, hailed her elevation as a "historic" moment for India. This is primarily because Murmu is India's first tribal to occupy the highest position in the country. At 64, Murmu will also be the youngest occupant of Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Murmu contested the election as the candidate of the ruling BJP-led NDA primarily against the veteran political leader, Yashwant Sinha, who ran for the presidential election as the joint candidate of the Opposition parties in India. Murmu won the election by receiving a record 64.03 percent of the total votes polled. Apart from the parliamentarians and legislators of the NDA, many non-NDA parties such as YSRCP, BSP, SAD, Shiv Sena, and JMM expressed their support and voted for Murmu in the election. Also, the polling in several States was marked by widespread cross-voting by MPs and MLAs belonging to opposition parties in favour of Murmu. Though Murmu had a remarkable victory, her vote share percentage was marginally less than that of outgoing President Ramnath Kovind, who got 65.65 percent of the votes way back in 2017, defeating Meira Kumar of the Congress, who got 34.35 percent of the total votes.

Murmu's election to the highest office of the Indian Republic carries immense significance. This is primarily because not only has India not had a tribal as the President but because leaders from the Scheduled Tribe (ST) community have hardly been given importance for decades.

Born on June 20, 1958, in Odisha's Mayurbhanj district, Murmu's journey from a nondescript village in Rairangpur to Raisina Hill is undoubtedly a testimony of India's democratic credentials. Murmu began her political career as a councillor at a local body, got elected as an MLA, and eventually worked her way up to become a minister in the Biju Janata Dal- Bharatiya Janata Party government in Odisha from 2000- 2004. During her tenure in the state government, Murmu handled diverse portfolios such as fisheries, animal resources development, commerce, and transport. She also served as the Governor of Jharkhand from 2015 to 2021. Murmu also had to go through a lot of tragedies in her personal life. Between 2009 and 2014, she lost her husband, two sons, mother, and brother. An excellent orator in Santhali and Odia languages, Murmu has worked extensively to improve transport connectivity in rural Odisha.

In India, the president is the head of the state and is indirectly elected by the electoral college which is constituted of the members of the Parliament and members of all legislative assemblies. The Constitution lays down that the President should act as per the aid and advice of the prime minister and the Council of Ministers. However, that doesn’t entail that the office of the President of India is entirely titular in nature. For instance, in case no party can get an absolute parliamentary majority in the national elections or the ruling party has lost its majority, the president has the power to decide which party forms the government. The president also takes a call on the sitting PM’s advice to dissolve the Parliament and decision on calling for snap elections, though all presidents have agreed to such advice to date.

Another crucial power that the President has is to ratify the bills passed by the Parliament. If the President has reservations about the bill, he/ she can send it back to the Union Council of Ministers, with her exclusive recommendations. If the Council of Ministers returns the bill without incorporating the recommendations, the president is compelled to give formal assent to the bill. In case the president has reservations about the bill, she can exercise the discretionary power of ‘Pocket Veto’ by not taking any action on the bill—neither sign it nor send it back to the Council of Ministers for reconsideration. In that case, the bill remains pending till the end of the President’s tenure. Interestingly, when the then Raghubar Das-led BJP government in Jharkhand had passed amendments to two centuries-old land laws — the Chotanagpur Tenancy (CNT) and Santhal Pargana Tenancy (SPT) Acts — that would have ensured easy transfer of land for industrial use, Murmu was the governor, and she objected to the bills. So, with Murmu now the Custodian of the Indian Constitution, it will be interesting to see how she exercises her powers in the interest of tribal welfare.

The symbolism of Murmu's election as President is not lost. There are many conversations on how her selection will affect the section of society that she represents. Most importantly, Murmu's election says a lot about tribal outreach, especially from the point of view of the BJP. There are elections due in as many as nine states before the 2024 Lok Sabha Elections. There is no doubt that electoral implications might have played a crucial role in the selection of Droupadi Murmu. For the BJP, Adivasis have played an important role in its schemes. It was the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government that first began a separate National Commission for the Schedules Tribes (89th Constitutional Amendment Act, 2003) and also a separate Ministry for Tribal Affairs. Jharkhand, West Bengal, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh have a large number of tribes, and with Murmu's elevation, the BJP would do well to woo them as a 'Votebank', in the days to come. By nominating her, the BJP is also seeking to get its foothold in Odisha's tribal-dominated belt, which it has been eyeing ever since it snapped ties with BJD in 2009.

All in all, the elevation of Droupadi Murmu represents the coming of age in the life of the world's largest democracy. Murmu may be a stepping stone concerning the all-around development of the tribal community. At a time when the political landscape in the country is undergoing drastic changes, the power of the new President will be crucial for the larger purpose of social empowerment and welfare.

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