July 18, 2017 1:29 am JST

Ruling party backs low caste member for president

Indian parliament endorses one of two Dalits in contention

KIRAN SHARMA, Nikkei staff writer

Ram Nath Kovind, left, one of two Dalit candidates for president, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi on June 19. (Photo by Press Information Bureau)

NEW DELHI -- A majority of lawmakers on Monday voted for Ram Nath Kovind, 71, from the Dalit community to become India's 14th president since independence from Britain in 1947.

The wider poll of state assemblies is expected to be swept by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies, consolidating their grip on power.

Dalits, once known as untouchables, were historically marginalized as Hindus of the lowest caste. Pitted against Kovind is Meira Kumar, 72, also a Dalit and the former speaker of parliament. She is backed by the main opposition party, the Indian National Congress, and some others.

Whichever way the national poll goes, this will be the second time a Dalit has been president since the election of K. R. Narayanan in 1997. Dalits make up about 16% of the population of over 1.25 billion, and have often complained of ill treatment by other castes.

Kovind, a lawyer-turned politician from the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, was governor of Bihar in the east before being named a candidate in June. His roots are in Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteers Organization), a Hindu group that is an ideological precursor of the BJP. It has often been accused of preaching hatred against Muslims, who make up 14% of the population.

The BJP's candidate is widely expected to win as the party has most votes in national and state assembles -- a tally improved by recent elections in some states. Several opposition parties have also expressed support for Kovind.

Last month, Modi tweeted that Kovind would make "an exceptional President & continue to be a strong voice for the poor, downtrodden & marginalized".

Kumar, India's first woman speaker, said on Monday she is running for president to promote social justice, inclusiveness, and transparency. "This is an ideology that binds India together -- it's very important to protect and preserve it," she said.

Some see Kovind's candidacy as an attempt by BJP to garner Dalit votes and offset criticism of it as a party for higher caste Hindus. Dalit support will be important to Modi when he seeks re-election in 2019 to continue his reform and development programs.

Attacks on Muslims have increased since the Hindu nationalist BJP came to power. One point of contention has been the slaughter of cattle for beef, since Hindus regard cows as sacred. On Sunday, Modi asked state governments to take strict action against "anti-social elements spreading anarchy" in the name of cow protection.

The winner of the presidential poll on Monday will be declared on Thursday once all ballots have been counted. The incumbent, President Pranab Mukherjee, was elected in 2012 when the Indian National Congress led the government.

Unlike in general elections when all eligible voters may participate, Indian presidents are elected by members of the national and state assemblies.

"Whoever wins, we are glad a scheduled [low] caste individual will become president," said Kumari Mayawati, a prominent Dalit who heads the Bahujan Samaj Party.

Indian presidents play a largely ceremonial role except when a hung parliament emerges from an election and no party can form a government on its own. Presidents are elected for five-year terms, and occupy the Rashtrapati Bhavan, a 340-room residence in New Delhi left over from colonial times.

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