During a casual chat with some of his family members, Pranab Mukherjee, after being administered the oath-of-office as India’s 13th President, was asked whether he had ever dreamt of entering the august precincts of the Rashtrapati Bhavan (the presidential palace in New Delhi) as its foremost occupant. In reply, Mukherjee reportedly said, albeit in a lighter vein: “I had often told myself that being the president is a far cry, but in my next life -- if there’s one -- even if I am born as one of those horses that pull the president’s ceremonial carriage to that red-sandstone palace, it will be an accomplishment of sorts!”
Luis Vazquez/©Gulf News
It is not known yet whether a septuagenarian by the name of Ram Nath Kovind had ever nurtured a similar desire as Mukherjee’s, but come July 20, once the last ballot of the Electoral College is counted, this low-profile politician from Uttar Pradesh (UP), who had served as the governor of Bihar until last Tuesday, may well be the new occupant of the 340-room colonial-era palace in New Delhi’s Raisina Hill: Home of the president of the world’s largest democracy.
With Kovind, a Dalit (lower caste), being named as the candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the die has been cast by the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo, turning the pitch for the presidential polls into a matrix for caste politics, thereby forcing a combined opposition led by the Congress party to field another Dalit, Meira Kumar, as its choice for the post. However, with Janata Dal (United) leader and Chief Minister of Bihar, Nitish Kumar, and Naveen Patnaik, the Biju Janata Dal supremo and Odisha Chief Minister, openly coming out in support of Kovind’s candidature, and given BJP’s majority in the Lok Sabha (Lower House), the opposition’s choice of Meira Kumar is unlikely to pose much of a challenge to the NDA candidate.
Since the day former prime minister Indira Gandhi chose Giani Zail Singh as the Congress’ presidential nominee – presumably to appease the Sikh community – the office of India’s First Citizen has often been used by the ruling party as a potent bargaining chip and a handy tool for a favourable interpretation and dispensation of constitutional authority in times of crisis over governance and politicking by the executive branch. Kovind’s selection as the NDA candidate is in keeping with that tradition. Eager to shake off its image as a primarily upper-caste outfit, the BJP needed to send out a message loud and clear to placate sentiments among lower-caste voters, particularly in view of recent atrocities by rightist, ultra-nationalist elements against Dalits in various parts of India. In more ways than one, having Kovind as the BJP’s choice for president is a masterstroke by Prime Minister Modi and BJP party chief Shah. Kovind’s association with the rightist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), to which the BJP owes its political DNA, is only too well-known. The fact that Kovind had even donated his ancestral home in Derapur to the RSS helps lend credence to his unflinching allegiance to a saffron worldview and a staunch Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) agenda. A Dalit, who also has the RSS ideology baked into his intellectual template, is a win-win for the Modi-Shah combine and as of now, in terms of the sheer numbers game at the Electoral College, a virtual certainty to clinch the July 17 duel.
There were several high-profile names among the BJP ranks that had come up in the last couple of weeks as the party’s likely choice for president. Former deputy prime minister and BJP patriarch Lal Krishna Advani, former Union human resources minister Murli Manohar Joshi and Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj being the most prominent among them. However, BJP sprang quite a surprise with its choice of someone who is rather low-profile and a political lightweight.
Kovind, 71, with his agrarian family background – born in the Dehat district of UP – is in no way a claimant to the ivy-league of Indian politics that an Advani, a Joshi or a Swaraj would find easy access to. After having completed his bachelor’s degree in Law from Kanpur University, Kovind, like the many thousands of graduate aspirants from his state, left for Delhi to try and make the cut for the coveted Indian Administrative Service (IAS). He cracked the gruelling Union Public Service Commission examination on his third attempt, but his marks were not enough to qualify for the administrative cadre of civil services. The IAS dream having turned sour, Kovind preferred not to take up a government job and instead turned to cutting his teeth in the legal profession. And thus began a fairly fruitful stint, first at the Delhi High Court and later at the Supreme Court. It was during his days as a legal professional that Kovind’s dash with politics took a serious turn and he joined the BJP as an active member in 1991. His formative years with the RSS making the choice of the political party all the more obvious. Later, he went on to become a BJP member of the Rajya Sabha (Upper House) and served two terms from 1994 to 2006. It was during his tenure as a Rajya Sabha member that he had the rare opportunity to address the United Nations General Assembly in 2002. However, a career high-point was reached on August 8, 2015, when Kovind was appointed as the governor of Bihar – a post he held until being named as the NDA candidate for the president of India.
For someone with such a humble background, who has been through the rough and tumble of life and career for long – right from the dust-bowl of the hinterlands of India’s ‘cow belt’ to the cut-throat realm of legal rectitude in the corridors of Supreme Court and on to the pristine lawns of the Governor’s House in Patna – being elevated as the likely president of the second-most populous nation in the world is indeed fascinating. There is little doubt that if and when he gets to walk down the red carpet at the Durbar Hall in Rashtrapati Bhavan, his challenges as a public figure will get magnified manifold – knocking the sheen off a hitherto mundane existence for good. And make no mistake, his Dalit credentials will have a lot to do with his entry into that haloed portal. After K.R. Narayanan, Kovind may well be only the second person from his caste to be elected as the president of India. But one only hopes that if and when Kovind becomes the president, the issue of caste as a catapult will be laid to rest and the new incumbent at Raisina Hill will be judged on his merits as a protector of the Indian Constitution and the republic. While negating demands for reservations in jobs for backward caste Muslims and Christians in India, Kovind, as the then BJP spokesperson, had once stirred quite a controversy, saying: “Including Muslims and Christians in the Scheduled Caste category will be unconstitutional.” It remains to be seen whether on such sticky issues of socio-economic propriety and empowerment, a ‘president’ Kovind prefers to put on his habitual lawyer’s gown or opts to play the natural arbiter with a constitutional guardian’s heart and soul.