Murmu versus Sinha, Unmasking the Real Contest between Modi and Mamata in the 2022 Presidential Election

Gouri Sankar Nag and Manas Mukul Bandyopadhyay

Imagine the malicious turn that the politics of Maharastra could take with unprecedented defection from the ruling Shiv Sena. Although in politics, which is now a lucrative bazaar, there is nothing called the concept of unusual or accidental. So we do not know if it is a semi-final before July 18th of the final climax of the 16th Presidential election. Whatever its significance can by means be local or provincial. Rather the picture is becoming clearer as we can guess who is pulling the strings from behind. Put in that perspective, it can be said that the ensuing 2022 Indian Presidential election won’t be a matter of simple choice, rather it is going to be another interesting episode for national politics in the coming days. That is why, consequent to the expiry of the 5-year tenure of President Ram Nath Kovind, New Delhi, being the main political chessboard is brimming with a lot of political moves and chicaneries. Or, in other words, a kind of tug of war is going on between the ruling party and the opposition to win advantages to get their respective Presidential candidates elected. 

In India, although the President is primarily a nominal ruler under the practice of Parliamentary supremacy, he exercises real power in unusual circumstances. However, given the fact that it is the highest government post in India in terms of ranking, vigorous political lobbying and campaigning are obvious, not for the minimalist strategy to avoid defeat but for the maximalist calculus of securing victory even by creating a tricky space that worked in V V Giri’s favour in the past. However, in the changed circumstances we are not advocating any such possibility but highlighting the need for a consensus candidate who might not be a charismatic personality to cause intra-systemic friction but who, like Pranab Mukherjee, would have been a seasoned politician with tactful composure. But after Pranab Mukherjee, it seems Indian politics has perhaps lost any such possibility of reaching an apparently incredible project of approximate equilibrium and thus steering the system through the rigmarole of irreconcilable political-ideological differences.

Although it may sound like prioritizing personality-driven factors and banking on its agency in the management of unbridgeable differences born of innumerable pulls and pressures, the soundness of the thesis has become perspicuous in the absence of a persona grata or it may be due to our inability to strike a compromise position to select a consensus candidate who would be like a non-partisan guide, sort of conscientious voice in the system. Although the evolution of Indian politics has brought things to such a pass, on the other hand, the polarization of opinion is evident in the clear bimodal texture of the party system with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), as a coalition manager of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the opposition including Congress assembled under the banner of United Progressive Alliance (UPA), is giving an impression that the battle would be one of the nerves and not of numbers. It is for this reason that the 16th Presidential election would be worth-watching for its cogent merit derived from the one-to-one contest in which the opposition despite its incoherent shape and embryonic weakness is not leaving the ground without putting a claim of a tough fight. 

This contestation in itself is a political statement that carries the potentiality of a democratic renewal from within the hegemonic system that the BJP is out to craft not for itself but for projecting its omnibus image much like the Hegelian Avataar. So, do not look at this election as an isolated event but put it in the context where it is precisely situated. There we find an ominous narrative of continuous falling of opposition parties in one after another state that is being interpreted as BJP’s growing popularity while enabling it to fuse together Hindutva and Modinomics. Perhaps this Presidential election is more important from this aspect of the new political economy, through which the centre might seek to pass more economic bills to consolidate its overall control covertly. That is why there is no mention of either the lingering crisis unleashed by the COVID-19 pandemic or improving governance as an issue in this election. On the contrary, we find a very skilful political game plan to appropriate an anti-elite sentiment or subaltern mindset that worked behind their choice of Draupadi Murmu.           

Draupadi Murmu, a tribal as well as a woman candidate has been chosen for the ensuing Presidential election, calculating on the basis of a number of votes. Born into the Santal family in Mayurbhanj, Orissa, Draupadi previously held constitutional office as the Governor of Jharkhand. The BJP leadership is confident that the ruling Orissa and Jharkhand ruling parties, Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), will vote for Draupadi. As a result, in terms of numbers, the victory of the NDA candidate is considered to be practically certain. It shows two points: one is that the BJP is eyeing tribal politics which ontologically won’t be a welcome signal either for their indigenous identity-based mobilization or for their empowerment in the long run because the BJP’s attitude represents the discourse of structuralist qua statist perspective that lays a double-standard game. As Professor Hilal Ahmed of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), New Delhi, has shown in a recent take that “BJP has already emerged as the first choice for Adivasi voters at the national level.” 

So now it is time to institutionalize “a pro-subaltern imagination” by putting someone from this section who would be “an active participant to offer legitimacy to the subaltern story associated with his/her identity”. So, as it is being projected that if Murmu gets selected as may be the case, it would be the first time a representative of the tribal society to grace the highest position of the country, is only half true. It is also but an oversimplification to expect that with Murmu’s election tribal politics would inch forward towards a significant transformation. Rather it might serve twin insidious purposes, one of emboldening the party to promote its “larger political narrative around the marginalized” while strengthening the Indian state to appropriate the political space of the tribal communities to empower themselves in an autonomous way.    

On the other hand, the opposition camp declared Yashwant Sinha as their Presidential candidate on the afternoon of the 21st June 2022. However, there was counter-activity in the BJP camp from the morning. Venkaiya Naidu (Vice-President) who was on a three-day visit to Hyderabad was summoned immediately to Delhi on the same day; he cut short the tour and returned to Delhi. Amit Shah, J.P. Nadda and others went to Naidu’s residence at noon. Speculation was rife in the political arena that Mr Naidu might be considered a Presidential candidate. But, according to sources, Amit Shah went to Naidu’s house to inform him that he was not being considered for the hot seat. Later in the evening, the leaders of the parliamentary board of BJP sat in a meeting in the presence of the Prime Minister. About 20 names were discussed there leading to the green signal in the name of Draupadi Murmu considering a more subtle agenda to spread the social base of the party by encashing Murmu’s image and by giving a twist to the claim of the state’s antipathy to tribal empowerment. 

Speaking at a press conference after the said meeting, J.P Nadda said, “We wanted all parties to agree on a candidate. But the opposition has announced its candidate today. Therefore, we have also finalized the name of NDA’s candidate after discussing with the ally-party today.” Actually, Mr Nadda announces Draupadi Murmu’s name as a Presidential candidate keeping in mind the representation of Eastern India, tribal society and women’s society. He added, “Draupadi Murmu, like Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, has been teaching for a long time. After that, she came into politics. She was first a Councilor, then MLA and also the Minister of Transport, Trade and Fisheries in the Government of Orissa (jointly of BJP and BJD). She received the Nilkantha Award for best MLA in 2007.”

However, as we intend to indicate that by announcing Draupadi Murmu’s name, BJP hits many targets with one arrow. First, the NDA camp had about 2 cents fewer votes than the Presidential vote. But with the daughter of the soil of Orissa standing, the vote of the ruling party, BJD, in the state is practically certain to work in favour of the NDA. If Draupadi becomes the President, she will be the first person from Orissa to hold the highest post.

By contrast, after a series of meetings, the opposition’s unanimous candidate in the Presidential election is Yashwant Sinha, a former Vajpayee-era Union Minister and recent-former Trinamool Congress (TMC) Vice-President. The announcement on the part of the opposition was made in a joint statement after a one-and-a-half-hour meeting of 18 opposition parties convened by Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader, Sharad Power, on the 21st instant. However, Mr Sinha himself hinted at the matter in a tweet that morning which read like this: “I am grateful to Mamtaji for giving me respect and dignity in the Trinamool Congress. Now is the time to move away from my political party in the greater national interest and to work for stronger opposition unity. I am sure, she will approve of my move.”

The opposition leaders held two rounds of discussions on Mr Sinha’s name the night before and the morning before the main meeting which began at 2.30 PM on the 21st instant. The leaders of Congress, Trinamool, Left, NCP, and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) met on the night before 21st June. There, Congress and the Left said that Mr Sinha would have to step down from the Trinamool party’s post before announcing his name; Mamta Banerjee’s party agreed on the same. It is said that if Mr Sinha is the unanimous candidate, then the Trinamool Congress has no objection. On the morning of the 21st instant, the final discussion on Mr Sinha’s name was held at Power’s house in consultation with M. Kharge of Congress, S. Yechuri of Communist Party of India Marxist (CPI M), D. Raja of CPI and Prafulla Patel of NCP. After the name was finalized, Mamtaji spoke on the phone with Samajwadi Party (SP) leader, Akhilesh Yadav, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader, Tejaswi Yadav, Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP’s) A. Kejriwal, Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) leader, K.C. Rao (KCR), etc. Sharad Power claims that KCR and Kejriwal, among others, have agreed with the name of Mr Sinha.

On the afternoon of the 21st instant, Mr Sinha sent his resignation letter to the Trinamool leadership and it was accepted. It should be noted here that it is customary for a candidate to leave his own political party post before submitting nomination papers for the Presidential post. Therefore, Mr Sinha had to resign. But the Congress and the CPI (M) have said that since an ambience of consensus has to be created, Mr Sinha must leave the Trinamool Congress before announcing his candidature.

After the meeting, Congress’s Jayram Ramesh read out the joint statement. It was said that Mr Yashwant Sinha’s name was unanimously decided at the second-round meeting. The statement said that the ideal situation would have been to select a unanimous candidate from the government and the opposition for the presidency. Yet the Modi government did not take any steps toward this end.  Mamata Banerjee later tweeted, ‘Congratulations to Mr Sinha for being the unanimous candidate in the upcoming Presidential election in support of all progressive opposition parties.’

According to Trinamool top leaders, this decision established the dominance of regional powers. Mr Sinha joined the Trinamool party at the fag-end of his career. His joining of TMC drew some attention among the media, especially it was seen to strengthen the pride of the TMC team as a credible front interested to throw gauntlets at the mighty BJP behemoth. Wise Gokhale said that what Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow. Today’s Bengal is a shadow of its 19th century legacy but there is no gainsaying the fact Mamata Banerjee despite constant threats from central agencies like the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and Directorate of Enforcement (ED) prowling on her party, is putting up a great leadership role at the national level. Hence it seems that Mr Sinha’s candidature bears the signature of Mamata Banerjee’s anti-gentleman, street-fighting image as a politician that makes an impressive appeal to the public mind. So, when conditions are politically charged and perceptively when BJP is much ahead, the silver line is that Mamata Banerjee is widely perceived as a powerful and unpredictable challenger capable to steal the wind out of the sail of the cocksure BJP.  

However, a narrative is afloat that there is a social and political message in the election of the candidate of the ruling camp, which is completely absent in the case of the selected candidate of the opposition. Moreover, Mr Sinha has not been active in politics for a long period. In addition to this, he does not represent any larger social class in that way. Besides, there is a huge distance between him and the MPs and MLAs (who are his voters). As a result, the opposition was far behind not only in numbers but also in delivering political messages by fielding a candidate like Yashwant Sinha.  

From the above review, it is crystal clear that the ruling camp has taken a tactical step after scrutinizing all aspects. Actually, there is no reason why the decision to field Draupadi Murmu for the presidency is not historic. Undoubtedly, the equation of BJP’s political interest behind this decision is strongly active. Thus if she is nominated, multiple regional parties will be forced to support the BJP in this election. The BJD has already expressed support, and so did the JMM; of course, this calculation was already done by the BJP leaders. Besides, the Gujarat Assembly election will be held this year; elections will also be held in 2023 in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. A total number of 128 seats in these 4 states are reserved for STs. It is to be kept in mind that in the last election, the BJP bagged only 35 seats. Therefore, before these elections, the BJP will gain the unique advantage of projecting a tribal candidate like Draupadi Murmu as the President of the country. Not just in these states, but wherever the tribal population is politically significant – the BJP’s political clout in those areas stands a good chance of political gain. 

So, like Ramnath Kovind, it is not difficult to understand why the BJP is trying to step outside the conventional style in the next Presidential election. However, it is also true that in a parliamentary democracy all parties measure the calculation of votes. With that in mind, it is safe to assume that the tribal woman – that is, a representative of the people who has been left behind in the two stone pieces of social oppression in India – has the opportunity to occupy the top position in the country; this incident is therefore very revolutionary in the context of social justice. It may be said here that in Draupadi’s nomination, a solid glass roof was smashed. About 9 per cent of the total population of the country is tribal; one of them had to wait for 75 years after independence to occupy the country’s constitutional top post. It is hoped that in the near future the present rulers will not hesitate to show generous sympathy towards the minority community too.

On the other hand, questions and doubts are already numerous. It is incomprehensible to know exactly where the place of Tribal and Dalit people is on the ideological map of BJP and ‘Sangha Parivar’ as well as their political strategy. Sangha’s Hindutvaism seeks to unify the entire Hindu society, to bring it under one umbrella. But it is not fully clear what role of the lower castes and tribes is in that system. There are contradictions within the Sangha Parivar itself. Where Golwalkar is a staunch supporter of ‘Varnashram’ custom (Casteism), the ‘Sangha Parivar’ has sought to transcend casteism in the wake of decades of political expediency. However, it is true that in the face of an insurmountable conflict, the two streams have to stand together, to deny the historical injustices against the Dalits and the Tribals in order to bring them under the umbrella of greater Hinduvism. 

‘All Hindus are equal’—behind this apparent façade of similarity, the strong dominance of Brahminism is yet to be suppressed. But how can it be suppressed, when that dominance is being vigorously celebrated every day in BJP-ruled India?  The critics allege that the current ruler and its supporters are not willing to concede any right of the Adivasis to their distinct culture, lifestyle the right to live in the forests. They further add that the ‘Sangha Parivar’ opposes even the newly independent government’s attempt to establish equality through reservation. The critics also raised suspicion about whether Kovind or Murmu would remain merely as a chess pawn in the game of politics only, and this is the politics of BJP. The importance of being the constitutional head of the country, the recognition of equality – is it all just a grand show in the end? 

About the Author

Dr Gouri Sankar Nag, Professor & Head, Department of Political Science, Sidho-Kanho-Birsha University, Purulia.

Dr Manas Mukul Bandyopadhyay,  Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Hooghly Mohsin College, Chinsurah, West Bengal.

Read more by Dr Gouri Sankar Nag and Dr Manas Mukul Bandhopadhyay at IMPRI Insights on The Unresolved Stand-Off: Putin’s War on Ukraine Disturbing World Peace and Agonies of the Divided Island.