India elects BJP-backed president

Suspension

NEW DELHI – Some 5,000 Indian lawmakers Thursday elected Drupadi Mormo, an indigenous tribal woman with humble roots, to be the country’s next president, marking a breakthrough for one of India’s marginalized minority groups.

The ruling BJP nominated the 64-year-old former governor of Jharkhand, who controlled enough seats in the federal and state legislatures to install its preferred candidate for the presidency. Murmo will be India’s first indigenous and second female head of state, a role with limited powers compared to those of the position of Prime Minister, now held by Narendra Modi.

But in a democracy driven often by caste, religion, and regional identities, Mormo’s elevation can resonate well beyond her ceremonial position, particularly among India’s 100 million tribesmen who have long sat at the bottom of the country’s social and economic ladder – and who They have noted that the BJP, which has been trying to expand its appeal beyond its traditional base of upper caste Hindus, has been seriously admired by critics.

On Thursday, with Mormo winning by a landslide, taking the votes of tribal MPs from opposition parties, BJP offices in remote villages handed out pictures of their candidate and handed out sweets to tribal voters. Party leaders hailed the former guru’s rise as a testament to an “ambitious” India under their leadership. On Twitter, the party’s official account posted pictures of its tribal supporters performing mass prayers in the deforestation of Mormo, a member of the Santal tribe.

Modi said on Twitter: “Murmo will be an ’eminent president who will lead from the front and advance India’s development journey’.”

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Nalin Mehta, political scientist and author of “New BJPIn recent decades, he said, the party has expanded its reach to Hindus who are traditionally considered lower in the caste hierarchy and the indigenous tribal population. Tribal groups make up nearly 9 percent of India’s population.

That strategy has paid off. Hindus from “backward castes” and Dalits, formerly known as untouchables, have voted in increasing numbers for the ruling party in every election since 2014, when Modi – a low-caste candidate – came to power.

In 2017, the BJP chose Ram Nath Kovind, a Dalit born into poverty, to run for the presidency. With the inauguration of Murmo as president, Mehta said, the BJP was looking to further strengthen its grip on Indian politics by strengthening the indigenous vote.

“The tribal women in Resina Hill are very important,” Mehta said, referring to the lush estate in central Delhi that houses the presidential palace. The BJP places great emphasis on tribal and women voting, two major new support bases. Murmu combines both in her personality.”

In November, Modi led celebrations for India’s first national tribal pride day. The prime minister also appointed eight members of the tribal communities to his cabinet.

These indigenous peoples of India, also known as the Adivasi, or “native people”, have far lagged behind the rest of the country in their literacy rates. Nearly half of them live below the poverty line, and the tribal communities that dot the eastern forests of India have battled decades of land grabs by state-backed developers.

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As the vote approaches this week, Mormo supporters point to its record of blocking legislation that would have made it easier to build on tribal lands. But Dayamani Parla, a tribal activist in Jharkhand state, where Murmo served as governor from 2015 to 2021, was skeptical. Barla said she wanted to congratulate the new president but noted that villagers around Barla who protested land confiscation during Mormo rule faced sedition charges, which were only dropped after the BJP lost power in the state.

“It is one thing to be appointed to a position, and to use it to serve the people in your community is another,” Barla said. “The tribes are dancing and singing today. Let’s see how long this dancing and singing lasts.”

Anant Gupta contributed to this report.

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