Indian lawmakers pick new president

Former Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh casting his vote at Parliament House in New Delhi yesterday to elect the country's 14th president, a largely ceremonial post that is being contested by ruling BJP candidate Ram Nath Kovind and opposition Co
Former Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh casting his vote at Parliament House in New Delhi yesterday to elect the country's 14th president, a largely ceremonial post that is being contested by ruling BJP candidate Ram Nath Kovind and opposition Congress candidate Meira Kumar, a former diplomat.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Ruling BJP candidate is front runner, with support of over 60 per cent of electoral college

India's federal and state lawmakers voted yesterday for the country's 14th president in a race where ruling party candidate Ram Nath Kovind has a clear advantage over a candidate from an opposition party.

Mr Kovind, a low-profile politician better known for working behind the scenes, belongs to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and has the support of more than 60 per cent of the electoral college, consisting of 776 MPs and 4,120 members of state assemblies.

Some parties like the Janata Dal (United) even broke opposition ranks to support Mr Kovind, 71.

Ms Meira Kumar, an opposition party candidate and the Congress' pick, has the support of all the other major opposition parties.

Both candidates are Dalits, formerly known as untouchables.

"Voted in the presidential elections 2017", tweeted Prime Minister Narendra Modi yesterday. He congratulated Mr Kovind in advance on Sunday and assured him of all help from the government.

The president largely plays a ceremonial role in India but has the final approval over legislation and has powers to grant pardons for death row convicts.

LOW-PROFILE

If you look at the ruling party nominee, it clearly indicates it wanted someone in the presidency who won't overshadow the executive in any way.

MR SANDEEP SHASTRI, a Bengaluru-based political analyst.

  • In the running

  • RAM NATH KOVIND

    A lawyer turned politician, he only came to national prominence when he was elected by the Bharatiya Janata Party as its presidential candidate. The 71-year old is said to have close links to the Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological backbone of the BJP.

    Between 1977 and 1978, he served as a personal assistant to former prime minister Morarji Desai.

    He practised in the Supreme Court before joining the BJP in 1991. In a career spanning over two decades, he has been elected twice to the Upper House of Parliament and served as national spokesman of the BJP.

    He was serving as governor of Bihar from August 2015 when he was announced as the BJP's presidential candidate.

  • MEIRA KUMAR

    India's first woman Speaker (2009 to 2014) is known for her calm demeanour even when faced with agitating MPs in Parliament.

    Ms Kumar, 72, comes from a well-known political family, being the daughter of Mr Jagjivan Ram, who was a former deputy prime minister.

    Ms Kumar, a law graduate, joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1975 and served in missions in Mauritius and United Kingdom.

    She joined the Congress party and won her first MP election in 1985 in Uttar Pradesh.

    A five-time MP, she has served as the minister of social justice and empowerment in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Cabinet.

Yet the win would be a boost for Mr Modi's party, which has been looking to increase its sphere of influence and trying to woo members of the Dalit community.

The BJP has a majority in Parliament and has chalked up important wins in state elections, including in Uttar Pradesh.

But under BJP rule, Hindu nationalist groups have become emboldened, leading to attacks on the Muslim community and also on Dalits eating beef. Most Hindus revere the cow.

Last year, in a much-publicised episode, cow vigilantes beat up four Dalit men for skinning a dead cow in Gujarat, Mr Modi's hometown.

Ms Kumar, 72, a former diplomat, yesterday asked lawmakers to vote with their conscience after Congress president Sonia Gandhi described the contest as a fight against a "narrow-minded, divisive and communal vision". The Congress has pitched it as a fight between Hindu nationalism and secularism.

"I have become a candidate in this contest to fight the battle of ideology. This ideology is social justice, inclusiveness, secularism... I have requested members of the college to heed the inner voice of conscience," Ms Kumar said.

Analysts said the choice of Mr Kovind was part of the BJP's political calculations. Mr Kovind also has the backing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological backbone of the BJP.

"If you look at the ruling party nominee, it clearly indicates it wanted someone in the presidency who won't overshadow the executive in any way. It also serves the political calculation of the party, which is looking at building a support base among Dalits," said Bengaluru-based political analyst Sandeep Shastri. Dalits form 17 per cent of the population.

Still, the choice of two Dalit candidates is being seen as a boost for a community which continues to face discrimination. "Whenever elections happen, one wins while the other loses. However, I am happy whatever be the result, a Dalit person is going to become the President," said Ms Mayawati, leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party who is known as the "Dalit queen".

The results of the election will be announced on Thursday and the president will be sworn in on July 25 to serve a five-year term.

The incoming president will take over from Mr Pranab Mukherjee, a former Congress politician.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 18, 2017, with the headline 'Indian lawmakers pick new president'. Print Edition | Subscribe