NEW DELHI – A relatively unknown political operator and member of India’s lowest Dalit caste has been elected as the country’s 14th president.
Ram Nath Kovind, who until recently was governor of the eastern state of Bihar, won an overwhelming majority to beat opposition Congress party candidate, Meira Kumar, a former parliament speaker and also a member of the Dalit community.
Kovind secured 2,930 votes in a secret nationwide ballot involving near to 5,000 lawmakers from the central parliament and state legislatures. Kumar received 1,844 votes.
The election of 71-year-old Kovind, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate, is widely viewed as part of a strategy by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to widen support among India’s 200 million-strong Dalit community.
Kovind is the second Dalit to become Indian president, after KR Narayanan, in office from 1997 to 2002.
Dalits, who are often referred to as untouchables, occupy the lowest rung on India’s caste system. Traditionally viewed as “impure” the group continues to grapple with persecution and exclusion.
Kovind, a lawyer by training who has practiced in both the Delhi High Court and Supreme Court, has never held popularly elected office and lacks an independent power base. For the last two years he has occupied the governorship of Bihar, a position appointed by the prime minister. He also served as the national spokesman of the BJP between 2010 and 2012.
Though the five-year post is largely ceremonial, Kovind’s election will help strengthen Modi’s grip on power, say analysts.
“Modi would not like anyone in Rashtrapati Bhavan (the President’s House) who can question him, that’s why Kovind was picked,” said Satish Misra, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, an independent think tank based in Delhi.
Unlike the American president, and in line with other Westminster-style governments, the role of India’s president lacks any real executive authority. All decisions taken by the president require the approval of the prime minister and the council of ministers.
However, each piece of legislation passed by parliament requires the president’s sign-off. As a result, the president can delay key legislation taken by the prime minister, and can symbolically signal disapproval of controversial bills.
Having a compliant president will help Modi if parliament does not cooperate with his agenda. The prime minister can pass ordinances, similar to a US executive order, with the approval of the president, said Shailesh Kumar, a senior analyst with the Eurasia Group.
Analysts point to the recent rise in mob violence directed at minorities as among the BJP’s primary motives in selecting Kovind.
“There’s a disillusionment among the Dalits,” said Satish Misra. “That’s why it’s necessary for the ruling party to send a signal that we are with you.”
Kovind is also a member of the the Koli ethnic group, an important voting bloc in Modi’s home state of Gujarat. A survey by the Centre for Study of Developing Societies found that members of the Koli community, many of whom are Dalit, switched their support from the Congress Party to the BJP between 2007 and 2012.
“Until now, Dalits never voted for the BJP. But in 2014, some percentage of the votes went to the BJP,” Misra added. “The fact remains that Dalits constitute over 20 per cent of the Indian population and they’re a vote bank.”