Ram Nath Kovind will be India’s 14th president. But for the ruling coalition’s choice and his electoral opponent Meira Kumar, merit and political credentials mattered less than their caste. Both the BJP and the opposition chose them because they are Dalits, which made it difficult for other parties across the political spectrum to reject them.
The election also caught the attention of the foreign media, which applauded the choice of candidates from the lowest rung of India’s social hierarchy. Caste-community affiliations became the normative factor for soliciting support, and the JD (U) led by Nitish Kumar broke ranks with its alliance partners to vote for the BJP’s candidate, exposing a chink in the opposition’s armour. It was a different matter that the outcome was more or less certain as the ruling alliance had the required electoral college numbers.
The choice of Kovind was seen as an attempt by the government to send positive vibes to Dalits following a series of attacks on the community in states like Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat. Kovind’s connection to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar could also be used as an electoral card to win Dalit votes in these two states in the 2019 general election. Kovind is also expected to serve as a rubber-stamp president with deep loyalties to the right wing.
But a refresher course on the president’s role can help Kovind make the right start. As constitutional head, the president takes a solemn vow to preserve, protect and defend the constitution of India. The Supreme Court in the Shamsher Singh case stated that “The President of India is not a glorified cipher, but actually vested with a pervasive and persuasive role,”... and he might “chasten and correct” the government. Article 75 of the constitution empowers the president to appoint the prime minister after every general election. In case of a fractured mandate, the role becomes crucial as the president decides which party is in the best position to form a government.
Kovind’s election appears to be a triumph of identity politics and the perpetration of political symbolism, but he has to rise above party loyalties and follow the rule book. The country is at a crossroads with increasing sectarian strife, intolerance and vigilantism. This calls for a more proactive role from the president. He has to address these issues not only by strongly voicing his concerns but also by directing the government to act, and if need be, become an interlocutor between diverse groups in fostering harmony.
Praveen Rai is a political analyst at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi. His key areas of interest include electoral politics, analysing election competitions and opinion polling in India