India Elects President From Caste Once Known as ‘Untouchables’

Ram Nath Kovind in New Delhi last month. He was elected India’s 14th president on Thursday.
Tsering Topgyal/Associated Press

A Dalit was elected India’s 14th president on Thursday, a rare achievement for a member of a community once known as “untouchables” and one of the most deprived groups in India.

Ram Nath Kovind, 71, an understated politician from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party, was selected as his party’s candidate for the largely ceremonial position in an effort to secure the Dalit vote in future elections. That is a critical step in the expansion of the party, known as B.J.P., observers said.

“Mr. Modi is essentially a political animal, and he’s conscious of the political impact of a potential move,” said Ashok Malik, an analyst at the Observer Research Foundation. In choosing a presidential candidate, “he’s also gone for somebody who could potentially help the B.J.P.”

The Indian president is elected by members of Parliament and the state assemblies, so given the B.J.P.’s strength nationally and the support of several other parties, the outcome of the vote was never in doubt. The Indian news channel NDTV reported that Mr. Kovind garnered more than 65 percent of the votes on the way to becoming India’s second Dalit president.

In televised comments after his victory, he spoke of the country’s villagers and its working class. “Today, I want to tell them that Ram Nath Kovind is going to the president’s house as their representative,” he said. “My election to the position of president is the symbol of the greatness of Indian democracy.”

He was opposed for the office by Meira Kumar, a Dalit from the Indian National Congress party who is a former speaker of Parliament’s lower house.

“Dalit politics suddenly has come center stage with a bang,” Neerja Chowdhury, a political analyst, said. “Every leader is bending over backward to show ‘I am a well-wisher.’ ”

Mr. Kovind was born Oct. 1, 1945, in a village in the Kanpur district of Uttar Pradesh into a family of the Kori caste, known as underprivileged even among the Dalits. He has practiced as a lawyer in the Supreme Court and served as a B.J.P. member of the upper house of Parliament from 1994 to 2006. Most recently, he was the governor of Bihar State.

Mr. Kovind’s connections to Uttar Pradesh are also considered significant. India’s most populous state, it will figure prominently in the 2019 general election, when Mr. Modi will make every effort to forge a broad coalition among India’s Hindu majority. Despite being the governing party in Uttar Pradesh, the B.J.P. has not historically captured much of the Dalit vote, and recent flare-ups over issues affecting Dalits across the country could hurt the party politically.

Last year, a Dalit scholar committed suicide in Hyderabad after being suspended following altercations with a right wing Hindu campus group. Dalits have also been attacked over suspicions of cow slaughter by mobs of Hindus, who regard cows as sacred. And there were repeated clashes in May in Uttar Pradesh between Dalits and members of a higher caste.

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SOURCE: NY Times, Nida Najar