Tuesday July 26, 2022

India’s new president is inspirational

India’s new president is inspirational

Draupadi Murmu

In the Indian constitutional system, the president is a titular head of state, and real power lies with the prime minister, who is answerable to parliament. But the post has a huge symbolic value. When Droupadi Murmu, the 64-year-old Santhal – a major tribe in the east of the country, especially in the states of West Bengal, Odisha, Jharkhand – woman took oath of office on Monday morning in a solemn function in the Central Hall of Parliament as the 15th President of India, its symbolic significance was not lost on the country. The tribals constitute about 8 per cent of the population, and they have been designated in the Constitution that was adopted in 1950 as Scheduled Tribes (STs), and they were provided with reservations as part of the affirmative action policy of the successive governments in the country since Independence. But the choice of Murmu for president was seen as a politically significant move on the part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). This is the first time in the country’s 75 years of independence that a tribal woman was chosen to hold the high constitutional office. President Murmu in her first speech after the swearing-in ceremony made the poignant point: “Reaching the Presidential post is not my personal achievement, it is the achievement of every poor in India. My election is evidence that the poor in India can not just dream but also fulfil those dreams.” Interestingly, Droupadi succeeds Ram Nath Kovind as president, who represents the most oppressed community among the Hindus, the Scheduled Castes (SCs). Critics have observed that mainstream parties like the BJP indulge in a mere tokenism when they choose a person like Kovind or Murmu because the discrimination and atrocities against the SCs in the society still continues though it is not as rampant as it was before. Similarly, making Murmu the president of the country when the STs remain poor and marginalised in the country can seem to be an act of window-dressing.

Choosing an individual from either the SCs or the STs might seem a lip service to the marginalised section, but it affirms as nothing else can that there is hope, and that dreams can be achieved. And it also asserts the simple idea of equality of status and equality of status enshrined in the Indian Constitution. And despite fierce rivalries, political parties across the board in power, those in power and those in opposition, respect the office of the president and repose confidence in the office-holder. The president is seen as above the political fray, and everyone looks to the president to be an impartial arbiter. It is this tradition of trust and respect invested in the president’s office that has made the Indian democratic system workable.

The Indian constitutional system has managed to create traditions around the apparently symbolic posts like that of President, so it leaves enough room for the system to function. The President in India has many discretionary powers, which are rarely used. For example, the President can send back a bill passed by Parliament for reconsideration, though it can be done only once. And the convention has emerged that the prime minister meets the president regularly to apprise the president about the working of the government. Constitutional experts are of the view that the text of the Constitution is not a sufficient guarantee for the smooth functioning of the government, and that there is need for conventions or practices, which are not written down in black and white, to keep the system going. India has developed the healthy convention of ceremonial deference to the President, the Head of the State. That is why, Murmu may been seen to be occupying a ceremonial office, but its symbolic value in the country’s political life remains high.

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