Bihar Governor Ram Nath Kovind was set to be India’s 14th president with the BJP announcing the little-known Dalit activist as its nominee for the country’s top constitutional job. If elected, which appears to be a certainty, the 71- year-old former lawyer would be only the second Dalit to occupy the Rashtrapati Bhavan after KR Narayanan. In a surprise move, the BJP announced that the low- profile Kovind was the National Democratic Alliance’s presidential candidate for the July 17 poll. “He was born in a poor family, comes from the Dalit community and has long struggled for the rights of the weaker sections. He has always been associated with the poor, backwards and Dalits… I am hopeful that there will be a consensus on his name,” BJP president Amit Shah said at a press conference here. However, consensus on Kovind, who headed the BJP’s Dalit Morcha, looked elusive with several opposition parties, including the Congress, unwilling to back him, though some others were more guarded in their response.
The opposition will take a call on whether or not to put up a candidate against Kovind on June 22. Confident in the party’s choice of a Dalit candidate, who had rarely ruffled any feathers during his years in politics, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted, “I am sure Shri Ram Nath Kovind will make an exceptional President & continue to be a strong voice for the poor, downtrodden & marginalised.” With an illustrious background in the legal arena, he said, Kovind’s knowledge and understanding of the Constitution will benefit the nation.
The BJP’s parliamentary board meeting, which was attended by Modi, picked the one-time Supreme Court lawyer after it went through a “long list” of names, Shah said, declining to reveal the other contenders. Kovind, who flew to Delhi from Patna after the announcement, told NDTV, “It’s a duty, let’s take it as such.” The BJP’s pick, a former two-time Rajya Sabha MP, known more as a Dalit champion than a Hindutva ideologue, had not figured in the names that were doing the rounds. The rumour mills had put BJP veterans L K Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Jharkhand Governor Draupadi Murmu as amongst the probables for president.
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Modi also spoke to Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and former prime minister Manmohan Singh to seek their support for Kovind, whose election seems a virtual certainty given the NDA’s numbers in parliament and assembly. The Congress was unimpressed, however, and accused the ruling party of making a “unilateral announcement”. The BJP’s efforts for a consensus was nothing but a “PR exercise”, said party leader Ghulam Nabi Azad. “They informed us after announcing this decision so there is no scope for consensus now… We were not expecting this from the ruling party,” he said.
That Kovind was a virtual unknown — he contested and lost the Lok Sabha election in 1991 from Ghattampur in Uttar Pradesh and the 2007 assembly election from Bhognipur — gave heft to many detractors in the opposition. As Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee expressed her reservations, her party colleague Derek O’ Brien took a dig at the unassuming and relatively unknown Kovind. “How many of you logged onto Wikipedia today? I did,” he said sarcastically. An opposition leader said they might field former Congress minister and speaker Meira Kumar, also a Dalit, as their candidate.
However, there were also those in the opposition who kept their options open. BSP chief Mayawati said her party could not be “negative” to a Dalit candidate. However, she stopped short of expressing support for Kovind and said her party would be “positive” provided the opposition did not field any Dalit. JD(U) chief and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar also expressed his “personal happiness” but did not commit his party’s support. Shiv Sena, a BJP ally which has played hot and cold over supporting it on the presidential candidate, said it would take a call soon.
But other parties like the TRS, which is in power in Telangana, were unambiguous in their support. YSRCP, an opposition party in Andhra Pradesh, has already offered its support. Besides, almost all other BJP allies have announced their support to Kovind with LJP chief Ram Vilas Paswan calling it a “political masterstroke”. The electoral college, which elects the president through the system of proportional representation, comprises elected MPs and members of state legislative assemblies — a total of 4,896 voters including 4,120 MLAs and 776 elected MPs.
The total strength of the electoral college is 10,98,903. The NDA is short of majority by barely 20,000 votes but with several non-NDA parties pledging their support to its candidate, the ruling block now enjoys a comfortable majority. The BJP is also hopeful of support from the BJD and the AIADMK, which are in power in Odisha and Tamil Nadu respectively.