There was not much surprise in the selection of Droupadi Murmu as the BJP-led NDA’s presidential candidate. Murmu was expected to be the NDA’s nominee back in 2017 itself but apparently the BJP brass vetoed the choice because it wanted her to have a longer span in public life before she occupied Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Murmu is a Santhali Adivasi from Odisha and pursued a political trajectory that should endear her to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home minister Amit Shah. She served as a councillor in Rairangpur, a tehsil in the Mayurbhanj district. Murmu’s home is in Baldaposi village in the same district, where she was born to a farmer. She was the vice-president of the BJP’s Odisha Scheduled Tribes wing, won two assembly elections from Rairangpur and was a junior minister in the erstwhile BJD-BJP coalition government.She had a long stint as the Jharkhand Governor from 2015 to 2021 but interestingly courted no controversy even when the state is under an Opposition government. In short, Mumru’s CV gives no scope for debate or controversy.
In power, when it had the agency to nominate its President and Vice-President, the BJP has run a part of the demographic gamut. From APJ Abdul Kalam, a Muslim after the BJP’s heart because he was vegetarian, recited sholakas (he was a practising Muslim though) and played the rudra veena and Ram Nath Kovind, a Dalit from Uttar Pradesh’s Kanpur Dehat. However, the women and Adivasi pools were left to be tapped. In Murmu, the BJP found the perfect mix: a woman and an Adivasi from its own family who naturally embraced Hindutva.
Murmu’s choice could put a Congress ally, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha in a predicament. The Jharkhand chief minister, Hemant Soren, has built his political capital on the support and votes of his state’s Adivasis, cutting across their religion. The Shiv Sena was in a similar quandary when the Congress nominated Pratibha Patil as its presidential candidate in 2007 but the erstwhile Sena supremo, Balasaheb Thackeray went against the NDA and issued a whip to the Sainiks to vote Patil, a Maharashtrian.
The BJP opted for Murmu keeping the east of India in mind. Having peaked in the north and west, the BJP needs a new catchment area before the 2024 polls. It was speculated that its presidential nominee would be from the east or the south, two regions where success has eluded the BJP so far, except in pockets. It went for the east because it has a strong, almost impregnable base in Assam, and runs governments with allies in the other north-eastern states. But West Bengal and Odisha have turned their backs on the BJP despite its success in the former in the 2019 elections. The BJP could not score an encore in the West Bengal assembly polls. Since then, its bench strength has dwindled and its dependence on Suvendu Adhikari, Mamata Banerjee’s arch adversary and the BJP’s Opposition leader, has increased exponentially.
In Odisha, the chief minister and BJD leader, Naveen Patnaik, is in a sweet spot: he has kept the BJP at bay and has the best of relations with Modi and the central leaders, a source of immense annoyance for its state leaders. Patnaik already endorsed Murmu’s candidacy.
Politically, it’s debatable if Presidents can swing votes for their parties of origin. BJP’s idea is to reach out to the Adivasi votes in Odisha and the east through Murmu. However, she cannot campaign and at best exists as a symbol. The BJP needs to do much more to recover its base in West Bengal and emerge as the BJD’s challenger in Odisha.
The NDA has the numbers to trounce the Opposition in the presidential contest. But numbers apart, the Opposition faltered from day one as it set about scouting for a nominee. Three stalwarts—Farooq Abdullah, Sharad Pawar and Gopal Gandhi—rejected the Opposition’s offer, knowing the result was foregone and it was futile to put themselves up for a fight.
Mamata Banerjee, the West Bengal CM and Trinamool Congress Party leader, was the most pro-active in the exercise, once the Congress—presently tangled in answering the ED’s repeated summons to the Gandhis—stepped back. Therefore, when the original choices backed off, it fell on Mamata to zero in on someone. That someone was Yashwant Sinha, formerly in the BJP and now in the TMC.
Sinha is one of the best known and a consistent traducer of Modi because he was disillusioned with the BJP, once his associate LK Advani was jettisoned. It’s uncertain if Sinha will please everyone in the Opposition. A former Socialist and a Chandra Shekhar groupie, he can count on the support of the Samajwadi Party, for one because the SP founder Mulayam Singh Yadav was close to the late Chandra Shekhar, a former PM.
However, Sinha is linked to scams that took place when he was the Finance minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee dispensation. He had to answer Parliament for his alleged role in the UTI and G-Sec scams that cost the exchequer precious money.
Mamata will have to marshal all her political skills to keep the Opposition intact and put up a credible showing against the NDA that’s hard at work on the fence-sitters on the other side.
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