NEW DELHI (AP) — A woman who hails from a minority ethnic community was chosen Thursday as India’s new president, a largely ceremonial position.
Droupadi Murmu, a leader from India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, was elected by the Indian Parliament and state legislatures in voting held Monday, making her the first president from one of the country’s tribes and the second-ever woman to hold the position.
She will be formally sworn in as the president on Monday.
Murmu, 64, who hails from the eastern state of Odisha and was governor of Jharkhand state from 2015-2021, is a member of the Santal ethnic minority, one of India’s largest tribal groups. She started out as a school teacher before entering politics and has been a two-time lawmaker from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party.
Murmu’s father and her grandfather were village headmen in Baidaposi in Mayurbhanj district in Odisha.
Modi congratulated Murmu by visiting her at her residence in New Delhi, and in a tweet wrote he was “certain she will be an outstanding President who will lead from the front and strengthen India’s development journey.”
“Her record victory augurs well for our democracy,” Modi tweeted.
Murmu’s supporters and Modi’s BJP party see her win as a triumph of tribal people and a breakthrough moment for her community, which generally lacks health care and education facilities in remote villages. Opposition parties, however, are doubtful whether she would be able to help empower and bring any change to the marginalized community.
The president’s role in India is largely ceremonial, but the position can be important during times of political uncertainty such as a hung parliament, when the office assumes greater power. She is bound by the advice of the Cabinet led by the prime minister, who is the chief executive.
She will replace Ram Nath Kovind, a Hindu nationalist leader from the Dalit community, which is at the lowest end of Hinduism’s complex caste hierarchy. Kovind has been president since 2017.
Murmu won against her opponent, Yashwant Sinha, a former BJP rebel who quit the party following differences with Modi on economic issues in 2018. Since then, Sinha has been a vocal critic of Modi and his government.
Indian lawmakers will vote for the country’s new vice president in August.