New Delhi: Former Jharkhand governor Droupadi Murmu, 64, is said to be known for many things — standing her ground, championing tribal rights, her administrative skills, and spirituality and humility.
As NDA’s presidential nominee, and with numbers stacked in favour of the BJP-led alliance, she could soon also be known as the first tribal President of India.
Those who have worked with and know Murmu speak warmly about her, describing her as someone who was “never a rubber-stamp governor”, and an ardent advocate of tribal welfare.
“She is our pride. We have seen her working as a politician and as the governor. She has always been very active,” said Sunil Soren, a tribal BJP MP from Jharkhand.
Murmu’s journey from being a councillor in a nagar panchayat to the NDA presidential candidate, achieved in a span of 25 years from 1997 to 2022, amazes many.
“Her journey speaks volumes about her life as a politician,” said Kanak Vardhan Singh Deo, a former BJP MLA who worked with Murmu. “We have seen her as a humble and enterprising tribal leader. She always worked for the community.”
“Her family’s association with three major tribal communities — Murmu, Tudu and Hembram — made her even more familiar with tribal issues. She has worked really hard for their well-being and to protect their culture and language,” he added.
With an image free of controversy, Odisha native Murmu was in 2007 given the Neelkanth Award for Best MLA by the state assembly.
“For her extremely balanced work and skills as an MLA, she was awarded the best legislator in 2007. She is known as a sensible and sensitive politician,” said Deo.
“She remained free of corruption allegations as well. And after her term as governor ended (2021), she returned to her village Uparbeda in Mayurbhanj district (Odisha) and rejoined her party (BJP) to continue work for the tribal population.”
Murmu’s nomination for President is said to have put Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren in a dilemma. His Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), which leads the state with the Congress, is part of the opposition bloc, and the latter has pitched Yashwant Sinha as the presidential candidate.
However, over a quarter of the state’s population comprises the Scheduled Tribes (STs) and CM Soren, who himself has tribal roots, is described as being close to Murmu.
A senior member of JMM told ThePrint: “Murmu has always been like a guardian to us. We are a closed community and help each other. Our chief minister will take a call on whether to remain neutral or vote for Droupadi Murmu.”
JMM general secretary Supriyo Bhattacharya said “Droupadi Murmu is a humble lady and we always had a cordial working relationship with her”.
“About the voting, we will convene a party meeting and take a call,” he added.
‘Mind of her own’
As Jharkhand governor, Murmu refused to give assent to a bill approved by the assembly seeking amendments to the Chhotanagpur Tenancy Act, 1908, and the Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act, 1949.
This was in 2017, when the BJP under Raghubar Das was in power in the state. The proposed amendments sought to give rights to tribals to make commercial use of their lands, while ensuring that the ownership of land does not change.
A senior RSS functionary said Murmu “not only returned the bill, but remained firm on her decision as governor and sought an explanation from the government about the changes it would bring for the well-being of tribals”.
“The bill has never been passed since then. She has been honest to the tribal cause as the Sangh does. She believes in Sangh ideology,” the functionary added.
Sandeep Sahu, a political analyst who has closely seen Murmu working as a politician and governor, said “she was never part of the ABVP (student organisation affiliated to the RSS) during her days in college, but came close to senior Sangh functionaries after joining the BJP in 1997”.
“She was never a rubber-stamp governor, and always used her own discretionary power,” he added.
Murmu’s decision to not sign the bill is said to be the reason she was not picked as the NDA’s presidential candidate in 2017, when her name was allegedly on the list of probables but (current President) Ram Nath Kovind was finally nominated by the NDA.
“Her decision is believed to have cost her the nomination in 2017. In July, just a month after her refusal to give assent to the bills, NDA announced the name of the presidential candidate. But she was not overly ambitious. These are the qualities that made the Sangh believe that her name should be pushed as nominee this year,” said the RSS functionary.
On Murmu’s decision to hold the bill, MP Sunil Soren said: “We the tribal society hail her judgement. Whatever she did, she did for the well-being of the tribal community. She is also a Santhal like me and has always worked for the uplift of the community. We hope she will do more for us as President of India.”
Politics to spirituality
Murmu, an arts graduate, started out as a teacher in Rairangpur, Odisha, and then joined the state irrigation department as junior assistant.
In 1997, she contested the civic elections and became a councillor in Rairangpur Nagar Panchayat. Three years later, she contested the assembly election from Rairangpur and won. She has served two terms as MLA from the seat.
Between 2000 and 2004, she got a ministerial berth in the BJD-BJP coalition government in Odisha. In 2015, she was sworn in as Jharkhand governor, and served in the post for six years, longest for the state.
Her term ended in 2020, but was extended for another year in the wake of the Covid pandemic.
“Since the formation of Jharkhand state, the governors kept changing. However, Murmu is the one who served the longest. Her administrative skills and ways of maintaining balance between the government and the Raj Bhavan reflect in her long term. She saw two governments during her tenure,” Deo said.
Murmu’s rise as a politician and an administrator has been through several personal tragedies. She lost her 25-year-old son in 2009.
He went out for dinner with friends one night and returned to a relative’s house. He slept that night and did not wake up.
Her younger son died in an accident a few years later. Murmu is said to have subsequently turned to spirituality for solace. She joined the Brahma Kumari movement and became an active member, said a senior BJP politician from Odisha.
After she was declared the NDA’s presidential nominee, she said she was surprised.
“I am surprised as well as delighted. As a tribal woman from remote Mayurbhanj district, I had not thought about becoming the candidate for the top post,” Murmu told the media at her Rairangpur residence Tuesday night, as quoted by news agency PTI.
“I was not expecting this opportunity. I have not been attending any political programmes for more than six years after becoming the governor of neighbouring Jharkhand,” she said. “I hope all will support me.”
(Edited By Nida Fatima Siddiqui)