India’s new president Ram Nath Kovind receives a shawl from a well wisher after being elected in New Delhi, India
As the once dominant Congress is pushed further into the margins of the current political discourse in India, a Hindu nationalist leader backed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been chosen India’s new president.
Although a largely ceremonial position, Ram Nath Kovind was elected by the Indian Parliament and state legislatures in voting held Monday, with the results announced Thursday.
Kovind is a former governor of the eastern state of Bihar and a longtime associate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), or National Volunteer Corps, a Hindu group that has often been accused of stoking religious hatred against Muslims.
The group is the ideological parent of Prime Minister Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which controls enough seats in federal and state legislatures to push its favored candidate.
Kovind pledged to help poor farmers and workers as he recalled his childhood living in a mud hut in a northern Indian village.
‘I never dreamed of this position. This was not the ambition of my life,’ Kovind said, thanking those who voted for him.
The president’s role is mainly ceremonial. He is bound by the advice of the Cabinet led by the prime minister, who is the chief executive.
Ram Nath Kovind, center, waves to media upon arrival at the airport in New Delhi
He will replace Pranab Mukherjee, a former senior member of the Congress party, on July 25.
He received 65.5 percent of votes against his opponent, Meira Kumar of the Congress party, a former speaker of the lower house of India’s Parliament.
Both Kovind and Kumar belong to the Dalit community, which is at the lowest end of the complex caste hierarchy in Hinduism.
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Given democratic politics is primarily a symbolic struggle for political representation and empowerment of the downtrodden, the election of Ram Nath Kovind with 65 per cent votes as the second Dalit president after KR Narayan – who was the 10th president and the first Schedule Caste candidate (1997 to 2002) – is a momentous moment for Indian democracy.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s choice has widely been described as a ‘political masterstroke’.
By selecting a Dalit candidate for the highest office of the land, he has not only managed to expand, deepen and consolidate the BJP’s political base among the poor, backward and Dalit masses much beyond its traditional upper-caste strongholds – stitching together in vernacular vocabulary the Mandal with the Kamandal – but also for cracking the old certitudes of Indian politics built around century-old caste hierarchy.
The new pres: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s choice has widely been described as a ‘political masterstroke’ (pictured – Ram Nath Kovind)
So formidable was the first-mover advantage that the NDA gained from selecting a Dalit candidate for the head of state that the Congress’s candidate Meira Kumar — also a Dalit and a woman to boot — became the only possible choice for the 17-party mahagathbandhan.
A Dalit-verses-Dailt contest for the head of country cannot be dismissed anymore as traditional caste politics as some observers have mistakenly identified the contest.
Indeed, by linking symbolic Dalit empowerment with democratic political mobilisation, Indian democracy has overturned the traditional definition of caste as rigid social stratification and redefined it as the main vehicle for liberating social and political transformation similar to the civil rights tradition of American politics and the selection of an Afro-American Barack Obama for the US presidency.
Yum Yum! Prime Minister Narendra Modi offers sweet to Ram Nath Kovind on being elected as the 14th President of India
Arguably, today the highest Constitutional offices of Indian democracy, the Prime Minister, the President and in the near future the Vice President (in all likelihood Venkaiah Naidu) will be political leaders with RSS and BJP background.
Yet the other common thread linking all them is that all three are from modest Dalit and OBC background.
To use the vernacular vocabulary, this is the sangh politics of samajik samrashta (social churning), in other words, the stitching together of the Mandal with the Kamandal.
India’s President elect Ram Nath Kovind greets people during a ceremony after his election
Historically, the RSS – led by conservative Brahminical leaders – had among them a radical streak in the form of Dattopant Thengadi, the trade unionist Swadeshi leader, who was the election agent of the tallest Dalit leader and the father of the Drafting Committee of the Indian Constitution, Babsaheb Ambedkar.
The new model of samajik samrashta practised by the new BJP under the leadership of Modi is an extension of that progressive tradition.
In its 70th year of independence, the presidential election of 2017 has proved to be historic beyond Dalit empowerment.
The contest for the 14th President has witnessed the highest turnout in presidential election in Indian history: a record 99 per cent.
Moreover, the campaign by both the presidential candidates were in the finest tradition of democracy by maintaining the highest standards of decorum and decency.
Will President-elect Ram Nath Kovind prove to be a rubber stamp like a Fakruddin Ali Ahmed who signed and approved of the proclamation of Emergency in 1975 by Indira Gandhi even before the cabinet discussed the matter or, will he used his presidential discretion to carve out an independent image for himself, like exemplary presidents before him in the tradition of Rajendra Prasad, Dr Radhakrishnan and the first Dalit president KR Narayanan?
According to Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, Kovind had been an exemplary governor from 2015 to 2017.
Right after his victory, an emotional Kovind said: ‘It is my duty to protect the Constitution and uphold its values as the President.’
As the custodian and the protector of the Indian Constitution should he do so as the 14th President of India, he will go down in history as a visionary statesman.