Politics of development is set for a new phase with Murmu - Hindustan Times
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Politics of development is set for a new phase with Murmu

Jul 07, 2022 09:36 PM IST

To understand the motivation and rationale behind this decision to nominate Droupadi Murmu, we have to look back.

During the Uttar Pradesh (UP) elections earlier this year, as I travelled through the hinterland, I interviewed an old Dalit man, asking him who he intended to vote for. Pat came the answer - Narendra Modi. The reason, I enquired. His one-word answer was “vikas” (development). The exchange encapsulated the Prime Minister’s (PM) push to forge a personal connection with India’s Dalit communities through a politics of patronage and empowerment.

Beyond the electoral realm, there is also the symbolic – and that is, for the first time in independent India, a tribal woman is set to ascend to the highest office in the land and be the country’s first citizen. (Santosh Kumar/Hindustan Times) PREMIUM
Beyond the electoral realm, there is also the symbolic – and that is, for the first time in independent India, a tribal woman is set to ascend to the highest office in the land and be the country’s first citizen. (Santosh Kumar/Hindustan Times)

Over the past month, we’ve seen another form of politics emerge, with the nomination of former Jharkhand governor Droupadi Murmu, a tribal woman leader, as the National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA) presidential candidate. To understand the motivation and rationale behind this decision, we have to look back.

In his eight years at the helm of India’s administration, PM Modi has crafted an image of a man obsessed with development. He is not the first leader to build his image. India’s first PM, Jawaharlal Nehru, carried an aura of being the independent nation’s founding PM, but Modi is the most successful politician in a generation – which included leaders such as PV Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh, who both steered the country through thorny social and economic periods, but were unable to create an image that galvanised the grassroots – to use his governmental work to build his image as a developmentalist.

How did he achieve this? Unlike his early years as Gujarat chief minister (CM), as PM, Modi moved away from modern notions of a developmentalist who wields power, and instead moulded himself in the image of Indian traditional spiritual leaders with little ties with material benefits. At the same time, his government aggressively redistributed power and patronage among underprivileged communities, creating a pool of trust among communities.

A key element was the crafting of aspirations among communities. Modi’s government focused on changing the material realities of the poor by building toilets and houses, providing electricity and ration, and by 2024, piped water.

Yes, there were electoral considerations, but the welfare delivery also represented a tangible transformation in the lives of people who had lived through several administrations with no tangible change. A team of efficient ministers, politicians and bureaucrats helped subsume the political imperative in the symbolic change the government was bringing in the lives of the people.

Over the years, the Congress and a raft of regional leaders – such as Nitish Kumar, Naveen Patnaik and Mamata Banerjee – made efforts to create the image of developmentalists. But the 2019 election campaign showed that the Congress’s ideas remain stuck in large statist programmes, and the CMs, while successful in controlling their images, were hurt by region-specific idiosyncrasies in their appeal.

Two of the biggest challenges to Modi’s image, hence, came from unlikely sources – one, the 2016 decision to invalidate high-value banknotes, and another, the sweeping protests in 2021 against three farm laws.

In the first, the PM invested his considerable political capital to pivot the discourse to the poorest, the most marginalised, and forging connections with them. In the second, his political savvy in taking back the laws ensured that the damage was temporary and limited to some regions and communities.

It is against this backdrop that the recent nomination of Murmu must be seen. There is, of course, a political imperative. Tribals are of immense ideological and cultural importance to Hindutva – the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has worked among adivasis for decades, trying to thwart what they see as attempts to convert these groups.

Moreover, in the central Indian tribal heartland, the Adivasi is still not a core BJP supporter but remains impoverished with poor access to the government machinery or welfare – and therefore, a prime target for the PM’s development pitch.

But beyond the electoral realm, there is also the symbolic – and that is, for the first time in independent India, a tribal woman is set to ascend to the highest office in the land and be the country’s first citizen. This is not only a moment of symbolic inclusion but also one of historic significance, one that not only has never happened before, but has never been attempted before.

With this move, the politics of development is about to enter the next stage.

Badri Narayan is director, Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute, Prayagraj

The views expressed are personal

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