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Droupadi Murmu: In Modi's Own Image

By Aditi Phadnis
July 08, 2022 16:24 IST
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Prime Minister Modi saw a reflection of himself -- she does not come from a political background, has no lineage, and had a lifetime of personal struggle and sacrifice.

IMAGE: National Democratic Alliance Presidential candidate Droupadi Murmu with Prime Minister N D Modi, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Home Minister A A Shah at the filing of her nomination papers at Parliament House, New Delhi, June 24, 2022. Photograph: ANI Photo

Today Mayurbhanj is ecstatic. One of its daughters, Droupadi Murmu, will likely become the President of India.

This is the second honour for the district.

G C Murmu, IAS officer, former lieutenant governor of Jammu and Kashmir and current comptroller and auditor general of India, is also from the district.

For the most part, Mayurbhanj is a placid place. But occasionally, the bamboo groves of Odisha's third most populous district can spring surprises. Not all are pleasant, testifying to the complexity of the region.

In January 1999, Graham Staines, a missionary working with leprosy patients in the region for 30 years, was burnt alive with his two sons aged eight and 10.

Dara Singh, aka Rabindra Pal, the man convicted of the crime, is serving a life sentence. He was not from Odisha.

But also serving the sentence are Mayurbhanj locals Mahendra Hembram, Ramjan Mahanta and Ghanashyam Mahanta. Dara Singh led the mob. But there must have been something in Mayurbhanj that sent the other local accomplices off-kilter.

A few years later, in the adjoining district of Kandhamal, Swami Lakshmanananda, a Vishva Hindu Parishad preacher, was murdered along with four disciples. Eight tribals were convicted and were given life imprisonment.

Where there are Christian missionaries, there must be the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its tribal wing, the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram.

In the forest belt of the region, the RSS has done extensive work in education.

Droupadi Murmu was a beneficiary of this work. She trained to become a teacher and her talent for public service was spotted early in her career.

Not much is known about Droupadi Murmu's early orientation but she became councillor and later vice-chairperson of the Rairangpur Nagar panchayat, and also vice-president of the Bharatiya Janata Party's Scheduled Tribes Morcha in Odisha.

In 2000, she contested the legislative assembly election and became an MLA, and also won for a second time in 2009.

In between, she became minister for transport and commerce, and then fisheries and animal husbandry in the state.

That was the period when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was prime minister, the Biju Janata Dal and the BJP had an alliance, and there was understanding and affection between Vajpayee and the BJD's Naveen Patnaik.

However, later the alliance broke and Murmu had to step down. But even after a stint as minister, the affidavit she furnished when she was contesting the assembly elections said she had no house, only a small bank balance and some land.

She badly wanted to contest the 2004 Lok Sabha election from Mayurbhanj. But pitted against her was Jharkhand Mukti Morcha's Sudam Marandi, another Santhal and a strong candidate. Her claim was overlooked in favour a male colleague's -- he lost.

Ruben Banerjee, author of an acclaimed biography of Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik and an expert on the state, says Murmu almost became President of India in 2017.

She was Jharkhand governor and she knew her name was in the reckoning when fresh security and other clearances were sought.

He says in her, possibly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi saw a reflection of himself -- she does not come from a political background, has no lineage, and had a lifetime of personal struggle and sacrifice.

But there's also politics behind the BJP's choice.

Mayurbhanj shares a long border with Jharkhand and also Bengal where the Santhali population is sizeable. For years, the BJP has been trying to turn the RSS's work into an advantage for the BJP.

But in Odisha, it has met with limited success.

Murmu's name for Jharkhand governor was announced soon after the verdict in the Jharkhand assembly elections went in the BJP's favour, but instead of appointing a tribal in a state where the majority is tribal, the party decided to make Raghubar Das, a non-tribal, the chief minister.

Possibly worried that tribals, especially the dominant Santhali community, might have been offended, Murmu was named governor.

A former bureaucrat from the Odisha cadre recalls that as governor, Murmu fully understood tribal sensitivities relating to land.

Jharkhand was torn apart by the Pathalgadi movement to protect forest land. Attempted tweaking of the tenancy Acts had created distrust among tribals. Murmu returned some of the proposed changes to the state government and very nearly got into a confrontation with the JMM government.

There's no doubt that it will be hard for the Opposition parties to oppose Murmu as President.

It is also entirely a coincidence that Yashwant Sinha, the Opposition candidate for President, should be a non-tribal politician from Jharkhand, while the ruling alliance should field a tribal.

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Aditi Phadnis in New Delhi
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