On June 21, when the PMO called Droupadi Murmu after the BJP Parliamentary Board meeting decided on her as NDA’s candidate for presidential elections, they could not get through to her, perhaps because of connectivity issues in Rairangpur. The next call went to Bikas Chandra Mahanto, a local BJP functionary who had been Murmu’s personal secretary for some time.
Recalling the evening, Mahanto says, “I had been her PA for some time, so my number was there with the higher ups. They called me and said ‘madam se baat karaiye, PM baat karna chahte hain‘.”
Mahanto was in his shop and requested them to wait five minutes. He rushed on his bike to former MLA and former governor Murmu’s residence. As he was stepping into her house, he received another call. The voice at the other end said, “Jaldi baat karaiye, PM baat karna chahte hain”.
“Madam was having her dinner. I told her that the PM is on the line and handed her my phone. Then madam spoke,” recounts Mahanto.
After her conversation with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Murmu disclosed that her name has been finalised by the BJP Parliamentary Board and a press conference would be held soon where her name would be declared for presidential elections. After PM Modi, BJP president JP Nadda also spoke with Murmu.
Ever the Simple ‘Didi’
Droupadi Murmu started her political career in Rairangpur as a councillor in 1997 and returned to Rairangpur after her six-year tenure as the Governor of Jharkhand in 2021.
Her home, which she shared with her younger brother Tarini Tudu and his family, is remarkably modest considering that Murmu herself hails from a well-to-do family, has been a minister in the Naveen Patnaik government and also the Governor of a state. The only thing that may be called special is a beige-coloured single sofa which only Murmu uses and photographs on the walls that capture momentous events in her life — her appointment letter as the Jharkhand Governor, a group photograph of the 13th Legislative Council of Odisha with Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, and a black and white family photograph from her younger days.
Debadatta Mahanto, the constable posted in front of Murmu’s Rairangpur residence after her candidature was announced, was taught by her from Class 1 till Class 5 at the Sri Aurobindo Integral Education and Research Center in the late 1990s. “Didi used to teach us Odia and Geography. She was not a very strict teacher. Her daughter, Itishree, is my batch-mate,” he says.
Rohit Kumar Bhoot, now a businessman in his mid-30s, also remembers being taught by Murmu in the same school. “Didi was my class teacher in Class 5. She used to teach us Odia. She rarely got angry with us. I am very happy that she is becoming the President.”
It is not uncommon to come across people here who have a ‘Droupadi Didi’ story or two of their own to narrate.
On July 22, after the presidential election counting confirmed Murmu’s win, a few teachers from the local government school came to Murmu’s residence in Rairangpur with packets of laddoos to distribute.
One of them, Meenu Bhakat, remembers meeting and greeting Droupadi Murmu during her morning walks. “She (Murmu) is a very simple person. She used to mingle with us. What will happen in the future, we do not know. But we are very happy today, we are very proud.”
Prabha Murmu, also a government school teacher, shares how she and thousand others had gone to state capital Bhubaneswar to demand for the regularisation of their jobs. “We were tensed, but Didi threw open the doors of her MLA quarters for us. She allowed us to use even her bedroom. Not just that, she also raised the question of our regularisation in the House. There were so many male MLAs. We were on strike for four days, but they did not speak for us.”
Prabha says two years after their strike, their positions were regularised. “Since that day in 2009, I knew that she was special. She understands the pain of the people.”
The President-elect’s younger brother Tarini Tudu is a man of few words and prefers the comfort of formality over the rush of emotions. “Didi is a very simple person. The only time she used to be strict with us as children was when it came to our studies. She has very simple needs, is accessible to people and always tries to solve their problems,” he says.
Those who know Droupadi Murmu, share a common belief that political success hasn’t changed her. She still prefers ‘pakhala‘, the traditional rice dish with fermented water, ‘chenapodo‘ remains her favourite sweet, she is accessible, down to earth, humble, modest and a problem-solver.
Home Sweet Home
Coloured a rich yellow, Droupadi Murmu’s paternal home, where she was born, in Uparbeda village is part concrete and part mud-walled. A part of the house has concrete roof and the other part has asbestos-tiled roof.
Now, Dularam Tudu, the son of Murmu’s other brother Dularam Tudu stays here with his wife Dulari and two young children. Dularam works in the Odisha Rural Bank.
Being in the position akin to that of a mother-in-law, Droupadi Murmu never imposed any expectations on her, says Dulari Tudu. “She has never demanded anything, has always carried everyone together. She is wise and even-tempered,” says Dulari.
A proud Uparbeda resident interrupts. “We never thought she would become President. We are very happy. This area will develop more. In fact, it has already started getting attention after she got the ticket. One colony in this village did not have electricity and now it has power.”
The Upper Primary School in Uparbeda where Droupadi Murmu studied as a child is still a work in progress. The village also has a Government High School that takes in Class 9 and Class 10 students. Uparbeda has another government primary school for students of Class 1 till 5. However, the upper primary school where Droupadi Murmu studied is struggling with staff shortage.
There is a new building under construction in the same campus, teachers say. The new rooms would be used as smart class rooms. The old building is now completely closed as its precarious state poses a risk.
Sabita Mahanto, a teacher who joined the school last October, says, “We are forced to take dual classes due to shortage of rooms and shortage of staff.”
So, what is a dual class? “It means we take Classes 1 and 2 together, Classes 3 and 4 together, and Classes 5, 6, 7 and 8 separately,” Sabita explains.
Whatever be the pressures, all students here are upbeat. Ask them if they know who Droupadi Murmu is and you’ll hear a resounding “yes!”.
“She studied in my school. She worked hard and became President. I will also work hard, I will also earn name for my village and country,” says Kumari Monalisa Giri, a Class 7 student.
The students belonging to the Santhal tribe are modest in their response. Says Priyanka Tudu, a Class 6 student, “I know Droupadi Murmu belongs to our community, my parents told me so… I feel very, very proud.” Jasmi Majhi, who is in Class 3, simply nods her head when asked if she shows that someone from her community has become the president.
Pride and Hope
At Uparbeda’s primary health centre, we meet Sukumar Tudu, who works as a safai karmachari in the hospital and earns about Rs 1,500 a month. Sukumar and her husband Baiyadhar Tudu have one-acre land and have to work as daily wagers to make end meet.
She, along with many others, had danced and feasted the evening before Droupadi Murmu was elected President. Sukumar swells with pride when she speaks about someone from her community earning the highest job in the country, but her joy is tempered by the harshness of her own life.
“I have urgent needs. I have to survive. One of my sons must get a job, my appeal is for a job for my son and also that I should me made a regular employee in this hospital. I want permanent work,” she says.
The doctor posted at this hospital, Purna Chandra Janka, also belongs to the Scheduled Tribe community. He says, “We were very backward. The lesson is that if one tries, one can be successful. We feel that she will work for the development of the tribals. She is the first citizen. We have lot of hopes from her.”
In Uparbeda, a big celebration is being planned at the Zahir, the temple of the tribal God Zahiriya, on the day Murmu is sworn in as the 15th President of India. The celebrations cut across class and tribe. “Who is the next President of India? She is the daughter of Uparbeda” rents the air.
When Murmu’s name was announced for President, Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik was the first among non-NDA party leaders to extend support. Patnaik, who has won five consecutive elections, appealed to other MLAs to vote for Murmu cutting across party lines. He also hosted Murmu to a rare lunch when the latter was in Odisha during the course of her campaign.
Odisha’s pride is shared by Pahadpur, the native village of Droupadi Murmu’s husband. Tribals from nearby 10 villages dressed up in their native attire, streamed into the playground where arrangements were being made for celebrations. As the men pounded on their drums, villagers circled their arms around each other and rejoiced while dancing.
An elderly Bangal Murmu sits on a chair at a distance and watches the festivities. “We are full of joy. She is going to occupy the ratna singhasana of Bharat. Even though she belongs to our backward community, she is set to adorn the high chair. This will definitely push our community to progress leaps and bounds.”
Damodar Bari, a graduate in History and Political Science, says he has a special bond with Droupadi Murmu as the latter had visited him after his marriage. Sukhlal Singh, another resident of the village, has his hopes pinned on the possible betterment of his own living conditions post Murmu’s win. “50% of the people are very poor. No provision for water for irrigation. There is one crop, that is paddy. I hope this village gets water for irrigation,” he says.
Jitsna Patra is working the drums to a perfect beat along with his team mates. He has a Post Graduate degree and is preparing for competitive exams. “This is our janma mati, she rose from her. When she became the Governor, there was some improvement. Now that she has become the President, there will certainly be lot of improvement. That is our hope.”
Decked up, teenagers Pratima Murmu and Sarika Soren walk back to their homes with big smiles on their faces. “I am very happy. I also want to become like her. She rose to the top on the basis of her own hard work. If we work hard, we will also rise. I want to become an IAS officer and, today, I feel that I can make it,” says Pratima.
Her friend Sarika has completed Class 10 and hopes to be a teacher. “We want to grow taller than her. We hope that she will give us a hospital, and a college nearby.”
Pahadpir’s government school is up to Class 8 and the SLS school that Droupadi Murmu has founded in the memory of her late husband Shyam Charan, and sons Laxman and Sipun, is a residential school that charges a monthly fee, the girls point out, taking it beyond their reach.
The SLS residential school was built in 2016 for students of Classes 6 to 10. It saw its first batch of all 20 students clearing the lass 10th matriculation examination, all of them with first division. It has 87 students down from 100-plus post the Covid years.
“If someone is unable to pay, the trust board manages. We never send anyone back due to lack of funds. We also have 20% reservation for poor students, who we admit without taking money,” says the headmaster.
Be it family members, neighbours, students or community members, whether they have met her or not, Droupadi Murmu’s presidential victory has lit the fires of hope in countless lives.
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