India elects Dalit as president

Ram Nath Kovind, the son of a modest farmer, secured two-thirds of the votes from nearly 5,000 legislators.

FILE- In this June 19, 2017, file photo, Ram Nath Kovind, center, waves to media upon arrival at the airport in New Delhi, India. Kovind, 71, a Hindu nationalist leader has been elected India's new president, a largely ceremonial position. (AP Photo/Tsering Topgyal, file)
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India’s legislators have elected Ram Nath Kovind, a member of Hinduism’s most oppressed caste, as the country’s 14th president—a triumph for the Bharatiya Janata Party, which nominated him.

A total of 4,895 legislators—4,119 members of state assemblies and 776 members of parliament—cast their votes in the presidential election on Monday. The votes were counted on Thursday, and Mr Kovind won 65.65 per cent of the votes.

His running-mate, M. Venkaiah Naidu, a long-time BJP member and until Tuesday prime minister Narendra Modi’s minister for information and broadcasting, will be the new vice president.

Mr Kovind, 71, rose from a modest background as a farmer’s son in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, His family belonged to  the Dalit group of sub-castes. He rose to become a lawyer and was recently ended a two-year stint as  governor of Bihar. On Tuesday he will be sworn in as president.

Crucially for the BJP, Mr Kovind also has close ties to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu right-wing organisation in which Mr Modi was once a full-time worker, and which is the ideological bulwark of the BJP’s politics.

Mr Kovind becomes the second Dalit to hold the president’s office, after K. R. Narayanan, who served as president from 1997 to 2002.

He was running against Meira Kumar, the former speaker of the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian  parliament. Ms Kumar—also a Dalit—was nominated by a group of 17 opposition parties, led by the Congress.

India’s presidential elections, held once every five years, are ordinarily smooth and apolitical, with rival parties agreeing on a consensus candidate. This year, however, the deep divide between the BJP and the Congress, over the BJP’s allegiance to Hindu nationalism, imbued the contest with unusual friction.

“We have fought a principled fight,” Ms Kumar said on Thursday morning. “We are fighting for values that most people of the country believe in.”

The BJP’s dominance of central and state legislatures, however, made certain that Ms Kumar was running a race with a foregone conclusion.

The president’s office is, for the most part, ceremonial, but it is vulnerable to political influence. Upon the recommendation of the prime minister, the president can dissolve state assemblies—citing law-and-order problems or other constitutional breaches—and bring states directly under the rule of the central government.

The president also issues temporary laws known as ordinances, and is charged with ensuring that government business is being conducted in accordance with the constitution.

Even the nomination of a presidential candidate can function as a political signal—a bid to appeal to a constituency or a section of society.

In Mr Kovind’s case, that signal was intended for other members of his Dalit community, said D. Shyam Babu, a senior fellow at New Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research.

Mr Babu, who researches social and economic mobility in the Dalit community, pointed out that the choice of Mr Kovind “makes perfect sense” for the BJP’s electoral arithmetic. “The BJP’s vote bank now comprises the upper castes and the most backward castes,” he said.

Roughly 200 million Indians are classified as Dalits under the official definition of the term, so they represent a large and powerful constituency. Three-quarters of this population lives spread across rural India.

Apart from the Dalits’ sheer electoral weight, the BJP has particular reason to reach out to this community. The party passed a law in May banning the sale of cattle for slaughter, and its emphatic rhetoric around cow protection has emboldened vigilante gangs who target anyone suspected of transporting cows to abattoirs or carrying beef.

Although the Supreme Court suspended the law on July 11, the party’s opposition to cow slaughter still persists. It disproportionately affects Dalits and Muslims, who consume beef and also work in large numbers in the meat and leather industries.