New Delhi: “Who?” That was the reaction of most Indians when they heard that Ram Nath Kovind, who was announced as India’s new president on Thursday, was first nominated for the post.
Kovind, 71, is only the second dalit – a member of the lowest caste in India – since independence to occupy the largely ceremonial post.
Few had heard of this low-profile and soft-spoken lawyer who was the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s choice to be the occupant of the presidential palace in New Delhi, originally built to house British viceroys.
Kovind gained an overwhelming majority to beat Meira Kumar, also a low-caste dalit candidate, who was backed by the centrist Congress party.
Votes from 4896 lawmakers in state assemblies and parliament were counted to elect the constitutional head.
“Kovind has secured a clear majority,” said election officer Anoop Mishra.
“I duly declare him as the president of India.”
Although he has been in public life for many years, first as a lawyer and then as a member of the upper house of Parliament, Kovind was an unknown face.
But it is not his achievements that have catapulted him to the job. It is his caste. The BJP chose him in the hope of winning dalit votes at the next general election in 2019.
Known as a party dominated by high-caste Brahmins, it is anxious to modify this image to secure dalit votes and, in Indian politics, gestures with little or no substance are a popular way of winning over marginalised communities. Kovind’s elevation is unlikely to change the daily reality for India’s 200 million dalits, who are despised and discriminated against from morning to night.
“Instead of this, why doesn’t the BJP make it possible for dalits to get jobs, to have the right to enter temples and get water from wells?” asked academic Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd (who renounced his dalit surname for ‘Shepherd’ as a snub to Brahmins).
“If high-caste Hindus in the BJP are in favour of equality, why don’t they ensure that a dalit can become a priest? Making a dalit president means little. Letting him become a priest would be more meaningful.”
According to some political analysts, the BJP is already set to win the 2019 general election, given that the opposition is divided and that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s prestige remains high. Apart from dalits, the next big distinct group among voters is the Muslim community, who are unlikely to vote for the BJP.
Apart from being instinctively leery of the BJP’s Hindu nationalist ideology, the recent wave of lynchings of poor Muslims over the issue of beef has ensured that Muslims are a lost cause.
The BJP knows this and, experts say, it has given up on Indian Muslims to focus exclusively on winning dalit support. In the March elections held in India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, which has a large number of Muslims, the BJP did not give a ticket to a single Muslim.
Among the few facts known about Kovind is that he is affable and gentle and has fought for dalit rights. The son of a practitioner of traditional Indian medicine, he managed to get to law school despite his poor origins.
His hobby is yoga. He will have plenty of space for it on the lawns of the opulent, 340-room, pink sandstone palace that will be his home for five years.
Prior to his appointment, Kovind said he was committed to upholding India’s secular democratic constitution.
“I respect the Indian constitution,” he said. “And no political interest can be above the rule enshrined in the rule book.”