India’s new president rose from poverty to high office

A few weeks ago, relatively few people in India had heard of Ram Nath Kovind. Now, the low-caste septuagenarian is the country’s president-elect, and will be India’s constitutional head of state.

Born in a mud hut in an impoverished village, Kovind, who is from the Koli weaver caste, rose to become a Supreme Court lawyer and later a politician from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

On Thursday, the country’s Parliament and state leaders selected Kovind, 71, to be India’s president by a two-thirds majority. Though his role is mostly ceremonial, the president does have certain powers — he has the right to issue presidential pardons to those facing the death sentence, for example.

His victory was widely predicted after he was selected by the governing coalition led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP.

Experts said his selection was an effort on the part of the BJP to woo lower-caste voters.

Generations of oppression coupled with limited economic opportunity long kept senior political positions out of the reach of most low-caste Dalits, once known as “untouchables.” Kovind is the second Dalit president since India’s independence; the first was Kocheril Raman Narayanan, who was president from 1997 to 2002.

Modi tweeted congratulations to Kovind on Thursday, as well as a photo of the two men together in their younger days.

In his earlier tweets, the prime minister carefully avoided mention of his Dalit status, presenting him instead as a representative of people from poor socio-economic backgrounds. “I am sure Shri Ram Nath Kovind will make an exceptional President & continue to be a strong voice for the poor, downtrodden & marginalised,” he wrote.

In recent months, BJP-led policies have antagonized low caste leaders. Efforts to curb the sale of beef, through which many Dalit communities subsist, have led to public lynchings by self-styled cow protectors who believe the animal is sacred in the Hindu religion.

The nomination of high-caste Yogi Adityanath to the coveted position of chief minister in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, was also seen as pandering to the party’s high-caste voter base.

“The BJP has been at the wrong end of the political spectrum due to the rising number of atrocities committed against the Dalits during their regime,” said Praveen Rai, political analyst at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies, based in New Delhi. “By selecting him on ‘Dalit identity,’ it hopes to (calm) the rising tempers of the community and win back their votes for the next general elections in 2019.”

For weeks ahead of the election, Indian newspapers and magazines detailed Kovind’s virtuous beginnings: that he would walk miles to the next village to attend high school, that he could recite sacred texts from memory as a 15-year old, that he once solemnly corrected a politician’s Hindi mispronunciation at a swearing-in ceremony — a testament to his devotion to the Indian constitution.

The opposition candidate Meira Kumar, also born a Dalit, was reportedly chosen to split the electoral college along gender lines, a strategy that “failed miserably,” said Rai.

Sonia Gandhi, head of the opposition Indian National Congress party, had presented the election as an ideological battle. “We cannot and must not let India be hostage to those who wish to impose upon it a narrow-minded, divisive and communal vision,” she said, according to NDTV.

Over the years, Kovind has been close to the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the right-wing ideological parent of the BJP — supporting its causes but never actually participating in its daily meetings, according to India Today magazine. Though a BJP stalwart, his distance from the Sangh meant his nomination was palatable to secularists, analysts said.

Analysts say Kovind has repeatedly shown deference and a willingness to be a yes-man, especially in his previous role as governor of Bihar, where he loyally backed state initiatives including a controversial liquor ban. A profile in India Today suggested that he will be an “unobtrusive” president, leaving the limelight for Modi.

Vidhi Doshi