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India's New President, Until Now Little-Known, Vows To Represent Less Fortunate

Ram Nath Kovind (left) walked with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (right) and Bharatiya Janata Party senior leader L.K. Advani (center) on their way to file Kovind's nomination papers for the presidential elections in New Delhi on June 23. Kovind belongs to the lowest rank of Hinduism's hierarchy.
Manish Swarup

India announced the election of its new president Thursday — but before Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP party nominated him last month to be head of state, few saw Ram Nath Kovind coming.

Kovind secured 65 percent of the votes from an electoral college drawn from more than 4,000 members of 31 legislative assemblies across the country and 776 members of Parliament. He will take office as India's 14th president next week.

Kovind, 71, had been plucked from from the largely ceremonial post of governor in the impoverished northern Indian state of Bihar. He served two terms in the upper chamber of India's Parliament, the Rayja Sabha. As a lawyer, he practiced before the Supreme Court, but his law career is said to have left no distinguished record of cases.

Both Kovind and his opponent, the Congress Party's Meira Kumar, a former speaker of the lower house, are Dalits — on the lowest rung of the Hindu hierarchy, once termed "untouchables." But the fact that the BJP now dominates a majority of India's state assemblies made Kovind the easy favorite in this race.

Modi's choice of Kovind was seen as a master stroke, dividing the opposition — whose original presidential candidate dropped out when Kovind's candidacy was announced — while attempting to consolidate growing support among India's low castes.

Analysts say Kovind's background worked to his advantage as the BJP stressed his humble origins and simple lifestyle. Not to have supported this son of a farmer from Uttar Pradesh, the largest Indian state, would have been seen as politically insensitive, analysts say.

Kumar, the daughter of an Indian independence leader and politician, was tagged as part of the dynastic culture of the Congress Party led by Sonia Gandhi.

The daily Economic Timesquoted BJP leaders as saying that the party's selection of Kovind would send a message to lower castes that the BJP is "with them." It was a message Kovind emphasized in his acceptance speech Thursday, when he said his election was an "emotional moment" for him:

"It has been raining since morning in Delhi. This weather reminds me of my childhood days when I used to live in my ancestral village. We lived in a 'kuccha' house made of mud. The thatched roof couldn't stop the water trickles during the rainy season. I, along with my brothers and sisters, used to stand in a corner and wait for the rain to stop.

There would be many such Ram Nath Kovinds who are getting drenched in the rain. Many would be working hard in farms and elsewhere to earn their livelihood in this rain. They would be shedding sweat to earn the night's meal.

Today, I wish to tell them that Ram Nath Kovind of Paraunkh village is going to [the official presidential residence] Rashtrapati Bhavan as their representative."

India's 13 previous presidents have included a lieutenant of Mahatma Gandhi, a comparative religions scholar, a trade unionist, a missile scientist and a gaggle of politicians.

"But they all had one thing in common — a fairly long and well known record in what is known as 'public life' before assuming the role of head of state," commentator Manini Chatterjee wrote in the Telegraph. She called Kovind "the least known person set to be president."

Kovind's supporters say his journey, whether as a lawyer or a politician, has been non-controversial. Critics wonder if perhaps Kovind's profile has been too low — that he did not press hard enough on behalf of his Dalit community. But Kovind's dedication to hard-line forces within the BJP — he once served as its national spokesman — seems to have put him in good standing with the top leadership.

Dalits historically have suffered severe discrimination and been among the most persecutedminorities in India.

The community forms a sizable minority, estimated at nearly 200 million people, that has found its political footing. With increasing activism, it has become a potent force.

In recent years, Dalits have mobilized against ongoing discrimination in employment and education. Groups dedicated to the memory of B.R. Ambedkar, a 20th century Dalit social reformer who championed his community's rights, have been especially active on university campuses across the country. Their efforts intensified following the suicide of a Dalit Ph.D. student in Hyderabad last year.

Kovind will be India's second Dalit President. The first, who served from 1997 to 2002, was K.R. Narayanan, an accomplished diplomat who spoke Chinese and became India's first ambassador to Beijing, and later Washington.

In India, the president wields little power. That's left to the Prime Minister. India's head of state remains above the fray and is supposed to set the moral tone for the country.

Outgoing President Pranab Mukherjee, whose term ends July 24, did it subtly but unmistakably, and recently said he kept his differences with Modi out of public view. Kovind is expected to remain in step with the prime minister.

Kovind will be sworn in July 25. He'll take up residence in the grand Rashtrapati Bhavan, the palace that once housed the British viceroys who ruled India until its independence in 1947.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.
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