Like the first Dalit president K R Narayanan, NDA’s presidential nominee Ram Nath Kovind has risen from a modest background but the two dalit leaders took different paths to reach the zenith of their public life. The election of Kovind, 71, as India’s 14th President is a virtual certainty with several non-NDA parties too lending their support to BJP’s surprise candidature of the little-known dalit activist and a former lawyer. While it is the right-leaning Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) which chose Kovind, Narayanan, a diplomat-turned politician, became vice president in 1992 and the president in 1997 courtesy active support from the Left, which had proposed his name first. Kovind’s candidature was announced yesterday. If Narayanan entered politics from the top-a noted diplomat he was asked by Indira Gandhi to join the Congress and contested his first Lok Sabha election at the age of 64 in 1984- Kovind has risen through the BJP’s ranks and held various organisational posts.
The Dalit leader from Kerala won three back-to-back elections and was union minister in the Rajiv Gandhi government. Kovind lost two elections- one Lok Sabha and one assembly- but the BJP ensured his political rise by sending him to the Rajya Sabha in 1994 and then in 2000. It is said the then Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao did not make Narayanan a minister because he was seen as too “Left-leaning” but the Left parties ensured that he became the vice president as a trade-off for their support to Shankar Dayal Sharma’s presidential bid in 1992. As the vice president, he was the natural choice for the president’s post in 1997 and all major parties, from the Congress to the BJP, supported him.
Shiv Sena, which has now voiced its reservations to Kovind’s candidature, had projected T N Seshan as its candidate who lost in an one-sided contest. Educated in London School of Economics and an IFS officer, Narayanan’s qualifications may be more impressive but Kovind too was a diligent student and had reportedly cracked the prestigious UPSC examination but opted out as he did not get the service of his choice.
He chose to practise law and was the central government’s standing counsel in the Supreme Court from 1980 to 1993. Coming from Uttar Pradesh, a hotbed of caste politics and a state with maximum cases of atrocities against dalits, Kovind has also been a champion of SC/ST rights and had taken up their issues at various fora.
As a Rajya Sabha MP, he is said to have lobbied hard for the passage of three amendments in the first NDA government to get some “anti-SC/ST” orders passed by the previous government annulled. Dalit rights bodies had said those orders adversely affected their interests. There is also a stark difference in political environments under which both leaders rose to the top post.
The period between 1997-2002 was a time of seismic political churn as the BJP, then the main opposition, was a rising force while the so called secular front of the Congress and the Janata parivar was on a decline. Kovind will take to office when the BJP is firmly entrenched in power and there is little instability of the kind which often confronted Narayanan, who had dissolved the Lok Sabha twice.
The leader from Kerala, who died in 2005 at the age of 85, distinguished himself by returning twice union cabinet’s recommendations to dismiss elected state governments, sending a firm message that he was no ‘rubber stamp President.’ First he did so when I K Gujral was the prime minister and the union cabinet sent him a proposal to dismiss the BJP government in Uttar Pradesh. He did so again a year later in 1998, this time sending back the Vajpayee cabinet’s recommendation to dismiss the Rabri Devi government. Both times he went by the book and won praise. Kovind comes to the highest office after earning praise from Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, a political rival to the BJP, for his work as a governor. Kovind brings to the table not just a marginalised caste background but also a clean image, solid if not spectacular compared at least to Narayanan’s educational accomplishments, proven experience, as a governor and MP, in handling constitutional matters, and a disciplined political career devoid of the usual excesses.
But Narayanan, son of an “ayurvedic” practioner always declined to draw special attention to caste as a factor in his election. “Please do not overemphasize my caste background,” Narayanan asked reporters during the runup to the 1992 vice- presidential elections. “A creature of circumstances,” was how Narayanan called himself. As a lower caste member of Kerala society, he overcame poverty and public humiliation to become the top student in his masters´ degree examination in English literature in 1943. He tried journalism in New Delhi before securing a scholarship to the London School of Economics. On his return to India in 1948 he was inducted into the foreign service and sent to Burma (now Myanmar) as a diplomat.
He was ambassador to Thailand, China and the United States before the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi asked him to enter politics. He was also vice chancellor of the Jawaharlal Nehru University(JNU). It was during Narayanan’s time in Beijing that political, economic and trade normalisation was established between India and China. Narayanan, named minister of science and technology in Rajiv Gandhi´s cabinet in 1985, had also earned an image of being a “clean politician.”