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India elects a president backed by the BJP


NEW DELHI — About 5,000 Indian lawmakers on Thursday elected Draupadi Murmu, 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 64-year-old former governor of Jharkhand state was nominated by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which controlled enough seats in federal and state legislatures to install its preferred nominee to the presidency. Murmu will be the first indigenous person and second woman to serve as India’s head of state, a role that holds limited powers compared to the prime minister, Narendra Modi.

But in a democracy often driven by caste, religion and regional identities, Murmu’s elevation could reverberate far beyond her largely ceremonial office, particularly among the 100 million tribal people in India who have long sat at the foot of the country’s socioeconomic ladder — and who have been assiduously wooed, critics note, by a BJP that has been trying to expand its appeal beyond its traditional base of upper-caste Hindus.

On Thursday, as Murmu triumphed in a landslide, clinching votes from tribal lawmakers from opposition parties, BJP party offices in remote villages distributed portraits of their candidate and doled out sweets to tribal voters. Party leaders hailed the ascent of the former schoolteacher as a testament to an “aspirational” India under their leadership. And on Twitter, the party’s official account posted photos of its tribal supporters holding mass prayers in forest clearings for Murmu, a member of the Santhal tribe.

Murmu will “be an outstanding President who will lead from the front and strengthen India’s development journey,” Modi said on Twitter

Nalin Mehta, a political scientist and author of the book “The New BJP,” said the party in recent decades has expanded its outreach to Hindus 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 reaped dividends. Hindus from “backward castes” and Dalits, formerly known as untouchables, have voted for the ruling party in growing numbers in every election since 2014, when Modi — a candidate who hailed from a humble caste himself — rose to power.

In 2017, the BJP chose Ram Nath Kovind, a Dalit born into poverty, to run for president. By installing Murmu as president, the BJP was looking to further strengthen its hold over Indian politics by cementing the indigenous vote, Mehta said.

“A tribal woman in Raisina Hill is hugely significant,” Mehta said, referring to the lush estate in central Delhi that houses the presidential mansion. “The BJP is greatly focused on the tribal as well as women vote, which are key new support bases. Murmu combines both in her persona.”

In November, Modi led celebrations for India’s first-ever national tribal pride day. The prime minister has also appointed eight members of tribal communities to his council of ministers.

Those in India’s indigenous population, also known as the Adivasi, or “original inhabitants,” have long lagged behind the rest of the country in literacy rates. Nearly half live below the poverty line, and tribal communities that dot India’s eastern forests have for decades battled land grabs by developers backed by the state.

As the vote neared this week, Murmu’s supporters pointed to her record of blocking legislation that would have made it easier to build on tribal land. But Dayamani Barla, a tribal activist in Jharkhand state, where Murmu 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 against land seizures during Murmu’s term faced sedition charges, which were dropped only after the BJP lost power in the state.

“It is one thing to be appointed to a position, another to use it to serve the people of your community,” Barla said. “Tribals are dancing and singing today. Let’s see for how long this dancing and singing goes on.”

Anant Gupta contributed to this report.

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