Hope for the marginalised in India

Hope for the marginalised in India

While the final no-confidence debate targeting Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and his crew was under way at home last week, my focus was on India's presidential election. The result was widely welcomed as veteran tribal politician Draupadi Murmu made history.

Ms Murmu, 64, is the first tribal member and the second female president in the history of independent India. She will take the oath of office today as the successor to Ram Nath Kovind.

Belonging to the forest-dependent Santal tribe from Odisha state, she hails from an underprivileged class -- a factor not lost on the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which nominated her as it looks ahead to future elections in multiple states.

Known as a grassroots politician, Ms Marmu rose from extreme poverty, battling a system riddled with entrenched biases against the poor, especially women. Along the way, she also faced personal tragedies, losing two sons, a husband, mother and brother in just six years between 2009 and 2015.

The BJP's political goals do not detract from Ms Murmu's considerable professional achievements. She first won election as a councillor in Odisha and later joined mainstream politics, serving as a lawmaker and governor of the eastern state of Jharkhand.

The presidency of India is a largely ceremonial position, but still a highly prestigious one. The president can play a key role during a political crisis by deciding which party can best form a government when general elections are inconclusive. The president also has the power to grant death-row pardons.

What makes Ms Murmu's achievements even more remarkable is that tribals in India live a life of extreme deprivation even though a third of the world's tribal and indigenous population, or over 104 million, live in the country.

Over 84 million people belonging to 698 communities spread across India are identified as members of scheduled tribes. Tribes are generally poor and lack access to healthcare and education. The illiteracy rate among tribals is 41% and nearly half live below the poverty line.

Though scheduled tribes are represented in parliament and assemblies according to their proportion of the population, progress to address their marginalisation remains slow.

Most observers believe the BJP aims to bring more of the underprivileged masses into its Hindu nationalist support base. In the 2014 general election, the party won approximately 12% of the votes among the Dalits, once known as "untouchables" in India's rigid caste system. But with a sustained effort to woo them, the number jumped to 33% in the 2019 polls.

Could having female president improve the lives of women in India? Will Ms Murmu be a mere rubber-stamp president who quietly clears all legislation the BJP government sends her, or will she find enough room to uphold the cause of women and the tribal population?

Some note that the presidency of Pratibha Patil from 2007-12 did not translate into better status for women in the country.

Despite constituting around 50% of the country's population of nearly 1.4 billion, women play a relatively marginal role in national politics. According to a 2020 report by the Association of Democratic Reforms, less than a tenth of the over 50,000 candidates contesting federal and state elections were women.

India continues to rank a woeful 135th of 146 countries in the Global Gender Gap report for 2022 by the World Economic Forum (WEF). Although it is in the middle of the pack for political empowerment, in 48th place, it has slipped in recent years in terms of female ministers, with its ratio falling to 9.1% in 2021 from 23.1% in 2019.

East Asia and the Pacific registered the second-lowest score for political progress, having come just 13.3% of the way toward parity. Only four Asia-Pacific economies -- Vietnam, Timor-Leste, New Zealand and Indonesia -- have closed the gender gap in politics by at least one percentage point.

Bangladesh received the region's highest score for political empowerment, ranking ninth. The Philippines placed 35th, India 48th, South Korea 72nd, Indonesia 90th and China 120th.

In many cases the elevation of a leader from a marginalised community or group does not necessarily mean that the entire community or group will benefit.

But I'm in the camp that holds out hope that Ms Murmu's presidency can signify a long-awaited improvement in inclusion for tribal members. Even if she didn't win the election, her nomination represents a triumph of political aspirations for women, not only in India and South Asia but for all of us as momentum grows for positive change in Asia's lopsided society.

Nareerat Wiriyapong

Acting Asia Focus Editor

Acting Asia Focus Editor

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