Ram Nath Kovind: Not really non-controversial

Last Updated: Tue, Jun 20, 2017 15:28 hrs
Ram Nath Kovind receives flowers upon arrival at the airport in New Delhi on June 19

The NDA on Monday announced its presidential candidate, Bihar governor Ram Nath Kovind, who may file his nomination on June 23, a day before Prime Minister Modi leaves for his trip to the United States.

The Prime Minister weighed in on Twitter.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banarjee questioned the decision saying “Someone of the stature of Pranab Mukherjee, or even Sushma Swaraj or L.K. Advani may have been made the presidential candidate” adding “Just because he was the leader of the Dalit Morcha of the BJP, they have made him the candidate.”

BSP Chief Mayawati asserted that her party cannot be negative towards a Dalit nominee but said that it would be better if NDA had named some non-political Dalit person as nominee for the President's job.

Kovind is a lawyer by training and a two time member of the Rajya Sabha. His stint there was marked by questions on the welfare of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. Having served on various committees in Parliament, he is also on the board of the Indian Institute of Management (Kolkata) and the B.R. Ambedkar University in Lucknow.

He has held various positions in the BJP both in Uttar Pradesh; as the State unit general secretary and nationally as the party’s Scheduled Caste Morcha chief. His seemingly low profile will certainly change in the coming weeks.

Writing in Firstpost, TS Sudhir states that this decision is an attempt by the BJP to shed its pro-upper caste image;

“Is the candidature of Ram Nath Kovind a belated attempt to reach out to the Dalit community, to assuage hurt sentiments? It would indeed be wonderful if Kovind's ascent to Rashtrapati Bhavan ushers in a more tolerant attitude towards Dalits in India. But it would be myopic to miss the politics in the decision. The choice of Kovind is a political acknowledgement by the BJP that the party is seen as an upper caste outfit. The party would like to be seen now as having taken a pro-Dalit position.”

In an op-ed for NDTV, Swati Chaturvedi writes that the Modi-Shah duo have made an ace move.

“The choice displays Modi and Shah's penchant for pulling off "spectacular surprises" such as the appointment of Yogi Adityanath as Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister. If elected, which is highly likely, Kovind will also be a President who Modi will be supremely comfortable with.” “The Sangh Parivar will be delighted as this is the first time that an unabashedly loyal ‘saffron soldier’, as an important BJP leader described him to me, will occupy Rashtrapati Bhavan. If elected, Kovind will ensure that Modi has a friend in Rasthrapati Bhavan while he sets about recasting his party and the country in a saffron image.”

The Dalit leader first stepped into politics in 1994 when he was elected as a Rajya Sabha member from Uttar Pradesh. He served for two consecutive terms for 12 years till March, 2006. He represented India in the United Nations in New York and addressed United Nations General Assembly in October, 2002.

The BJP had put out a bio of Ram Nath Kovind:

The New Indian Express editorial called the decision ‘intensely political’.

“There is no doubt that the candidature of Governor Kovind, apart from apparently being an all-round surprise, is intensely political.”

The editorial states that this decision is calculated and now the ball is in the opposition’s court.

“If the NDA succeeds in opening the gates of Rashtrapati Bhawan to India’s second Dalit president, it will be arguably taking a significant leap forward in advancing the political project of shaking off the mantle of the Brahmin-Bania party that favours the relatively privileged on the socio-economic ladder and remaking itself as a vehicle for the aspirations of the backward and the disadvantaged. Its impact on its intended audience — the Dalits — will only be revealed in the long term. For now, it is up to the opposition to join the political contest for president.”

The Economic Times editorial called it a political choice.

“Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pick for President has been quintessentially political. Kovind’s choice is clearly designed to shore up the BJP’s Dalit support base, which needs some shoring up after anti-BJP mobilization among Dalits following a series of developments ranging from Rohith Vemula’s suicide at Hyderabad University to the thrashing of Dalits in Una and the recent attacks on Dalits in Saharanpur.”

In the Hindustan Times, Vinod Sharma opines

“From the BJP’s standpoint, the elevation of Kovind -- born in 1945 in Derapur sub-division of what is now Kanpur Dehat -- will fetch it the credit for installing a Dalit as the country’s president. On the face of it, Kovind’s elevation is expected to repair and consolidate the party’s social base.

He writes on how this has put the opposition in a difficult spot regarding their reaction and their pick.

“…it will be difficult for Opposition parties to reject upfront a Dalit for the presidency. The options available to them include fielding a tribal or another Dalit by showing their choice as more meritorious for the top job.”

The Tribune editorial states that the choice has a ‘Dalit agenda’

“He is not without experience of public life; he also has certain familiarity with the legislative landscape. The problem is that the selection is seen as a realpolitik pursuit of a ‘Dalit Agenda’. In this age of identity politics and caste vote banks the NDA managers have their calculations and compulsions.”

The editorial states that the candidate does not ‘inspire confidence’ given the office they are set to occupy.

“It (BJP) could pick an outstanding public figure to head the republic. Tokenism has its uses, and we have already had a Dalit president (KR Narayanan). The person who gets to live in the sprawling Rashtrapati Bhavan has to inspire confidence that he/she can be relied upon to be a robust custodian of the republic and its constitutional values and traditions. On that count, the Kovind choice falls considerably short.”

In the Huffington Post, a report stated that Kovind is opposed to reservations for religious minorities in light of comments made by him in 2010. In a press conference he said “no, that’s not possible” referring to the 2009 Ranganath Misra commissions’ recommendation of 10% reservation for Muslims and five percent for other minorities in government jobs.

The remarks were referring to a 2010 Hindustan Times story, when Ram Nath Kovind was then the BJP’s newly appointed spokesperson. He called for the scrapping of the Ranganath Misra commission report. He said, “Including Muslims and Christians in the Scheduled Castes category will be unconstitutional”. When asked how Sikh dalits had quotas but not Muslims, he replied “Islam and Christianity are alien to the nation.” Though some reports as per a Hindustan Times story note that he may have been misquoted and that he said ‘notion’ and not ‘nation’. It remains to be seen if these remarks will hurt him in his effort to reach out to political parties.

In 2012, according to a report in The Wire, Kovind testified in favor of former BJP president Bangaru Laxman, who was eventually convicted of corruption. He testified that he met Laxman after the Tehelka expose was telecast and that the BJP president had said he had been “framed” in the case. Kovind said in court that he did not know if Laxman accepted the bribe of Rs 1 lakh, which the court did in fact find Laxman guilty of accepting.

All eyes now turn towards the opposition who are likely to meet and finalize a name on June 22. The front-runners according to an India Today report are Former Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar, former Union Minister Sushilkumar Shinde, BR Ambedkar's grandson Prakash Yashwant Ambedkar, and Mahatma Gandhi's grandson and former bureaucrat Gopal Krishna Gan.


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