India’s lawmakers in Parliament and state assemblies voted on Monday to elect the country’s next president in an election that pits two veteran Dalit leaders against each other. (HIGHLIGHTS)
The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) nominee, 71-year-old Ram Nath Kovind, is expected to win the polls, described by his rival, opposition candidate Meira Kumar, as a battle of ideologies.
The result will be declared on July 20. President Pranab Mukherjee’s tenure ends on July 24.
“The presidential poll this time is historic. Probably for the first time no party has made any undignified or unwarranted comment on the rival candidate,” Modi said before casting his vote.
“Every political party has kept in mind the dignity of this election.”
Modi hopes Kovind’s election could help the BJP shake off allegations of bias against Dalits, a charge magnified by a series of attacks on the community, among India’s poorest and relegated to the margins of society.
It will be only the second time that India has had a Dalit head of state.
Dalits, who number around 200 million in the nation of 1.3 billion, form a sizeable chunk of the population in some states which go to polls this year and early next year.
The polls also laid bare the divisions within the Congress-led opposition parties, which had hoped to project a show of unity ahead of the general elections in 2019.
JD(U) leader and Bihar chief minister, Nitish Kumar, deciding to back Kovind is seen as a biggest setback for the opposition. Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal too has backed the NDA candidate.
With the numbers stacked against her, Meira Kumar urged members of the electoral college to heed their “voice of conscience” and vote for an ideology that binds India.
“…I am a candidate in this contest to fight the battle of ideology,” Kumar said.
The former Lok Sabha speaker said that the ideology of “social justice, inclusiveness, secularism, transparency, freedom of expression and press, poverty alleviation and total destruction of caste system” binds India together.
Kumar, the daughter of freedom fighter Jagjivan Ram, was a diplomat before entering politics in 1985 and became India’s first woman speaker in 2009.
Her nomination, which followed Kovind’s, was seen by many as the opposition’s attempt to counter Modi’s move to woo Dalits.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi rallied opposition ranks before the vote, also calling the contest a “clash of ideas and a conflict of disparate values”.
“We cannot and must not let India be hostage to those who wish to impose upon it a narrow-minded, divisive and communal vision,” Gandhi said, in an apparent reference to allegations that the BJP government was not doing enough to rein in fringe Hindu groups targeting Muslims.
Both Kovind and Kumar held a series of meetings across states to mobilise support for their candidature.
But Kovind, a former Bihar governor, is expected to garner more than 70% of the votes as the NDA enjoys a brute majority in the Lok Sabha and also in 17 states.
The Election Commission appointed 33 observers to oversee the election. While two observers were present in Parliament House, one each was deployed in the state assemblies.
India’s prime minister wields executive power, but the president can send back some parliamentary bills for reconsideration and also plays a guiding role in the process of forming governments.
Some presidents, such as Pranab Mukherjee, have tried to act as conscience-keepers, using their constitutional authority to defend India’s founding principles as a secular, diverse democracy.
Kovind’s ascent to the top post in the country will be first by a leader who started out with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological mentor of the BJP.
(With agency inputs)