NEW DELHI - India’s federal and state lawmakers voted on Monday (July 17) 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.
Opposition party candidate Ms Meira Kumar, 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, who 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.
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 party 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 Dalits over 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.
On Monday, Ms Kumar, a 72-year old former diplomat, asked lawmakers to vote for their conscience after Congress President Sonia Gandhi, described the fight against a “narrow-minded, divisive and communal vision”. The Congress has pitched the election 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 say that the choice of Mr Kovind was all 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 they 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 also 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 and known as the Dalit queen.
The results for the President’s elections 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.