In­dia votes for next prez from low­est Dalit caste

Modi termed na­tion­wide vote a ‘his­toric’ elec­tion

Kuwait Times - - LOCAL -

In­dian law­mak­ers voted yes­ter­day for a new pres­i­dent cer­tain to come from the bot­tom of the Hindu caste sys­tem, in an elec­tion seen as strength­en­ing Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi’s grip on power. Some 4,900 leg­is­la­tors na­tion­wide voted in what Modi termed a “his­toric” elec­tion to choose the tit­u­lar head of state.

Ram Nath Kovind, the can­di­date of Modi’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and a for­mer lawyer and state gov­er­nor from the Dalit com­mu­nity, is cer­tain to win. His main ri­val is Meira Ku­mar, the nom­i­nee of the Congress-led op­po­si­tion and also a Dalit. But the BJP, which won a land­slide in a gen­eral elec­tion in 2014, has for the first time as­sem­bled enough Elec­toral Col­lege votes across the coun­try to push through its pres­i­den­tial can­di­date. Congress has tra­di­tion­ally dom­i­nated the post.

“There is no rocket science, Ram Nath Kovind will win to­day,” Pra­ful Pa­tel, a leader of the small op­po­si­tion Na­tion­al­ist Congress Party, con­ceded as he cast his vote. Modi was among the first to vote, us­ing a spe­cially ap­proved vi­o­let ink pen. The elec­tion com­mis­sion barred the use of per­sonal pens to en­sure clean vot­ing. The re­sult will be an­nounced Thurs­day. “The pres­i­den­tial poll this time is his­toric. Prob­a­bly for the first time no party has made any undig­ni­fied or un­war­ranted com­ment on the ri­val can­di­date,” Modi tweeted on the eve of the poll.

“Ev­ery po­lit­i­cal party has kept in mind the dig­nity of this elec­tion.” In­dia’s prime min­is­ter wields ex­ec­u­tive power, but the pres­i­dent can send back some par­lia­men­tary bills for re­con­sid­er­a­tion and also plays a guid­ing role in the process of form­ing govern­ments. An­a­lysts said the elction of Kovind, 71, would help Modi tighten his grip on power and ac­crue po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal by send­ing an im­por­tant mes­sage to the Dal­its, a long-dis­dained elec­toral group once known as “un­touch­ables”.

Dal­its, who num­ber around 200 mil­lion in the na­tion of 1.3 bil­lion, are among In­dia’s poor­est com­mu­ni­ties and rel­e­gated to the mar­gins of so­ci­ety. De­spite le­gal pro­tec­tion, dis­crim­i­na­tion is rife and Dal­its are rou­tinely de­nied ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tion and other ad­vance­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties. On the day of the vote, me­dia re­ported the case of a Dalit la­borer al­legedly beaten to death by up­per-caste at­tack­ers, high­light­ing the plight of the “un­touch­able” caste. Modi’s ri­vals have protested at Kovind’s nom­i­na­tion, cit­ing his as­so­ci­a­tion with the rad­i­cal rightwing Rashtriya Swayam­se­vak Sangh, the ide­o­log­i­cal power be­hind the BJP. The op­po­si­tion nom­i­nee Ku­mar, the daugh­ter of free­dom fighter Babu Jagji­van Ram, was a diplo­mat be­fore en­ter­ing pol­i­tics in 1985 and be­came In­dia’s first woman speaker in 2009. Her nom­i­na­tion, which fol­lowed Kovind’s, was seen by many as an op­po­si­tion at­tempt to counter Modi’s move to woo Dal­its.

Congress pres­i­dent So­nia Gandhi ral­lied op­po­si­tion ranks be­fore the vote, call­ing the con­test a “clash of ideas and a con­flict of dis­parate val­ues”. “We can­not and must not let In­dia be hostage to those who wish to im­pose upon it a nar­row-minded, di­vi­sive and com­mu­nal vi­sion,” Gandhi said. Votes from the BJP’s tra­di­tional Hindu base pro­pelled Modi to his 2014 leg­isla­tive vic­tory, es­pe­cially in the bat­tle­ground states of Ut­tar Pradesh and Bi­har.

Dalit sup­port will be key for the BJP be­fore the 2019 gen­eral elec­tion as the party has been largely shunned by Mus­lims, who make up about 14 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion. “The Dalit com­mu­nity has bases across the coun­try es­pe­cially in all the big, elec­torally sig­nif­i­cant states,” said Nis­tula Heb­bar, po­lit­i­cal editor of The Hindu news­pa­per. “The com­mu­nity’s vote is im­por­tant for all, es­pe­cially for the BJP. In a democ­racy, their num­bers mat­ter a lot,” she said. —AFP

—AP

NEW DELHI: In this June 19, 2017, file photo, Ram Nath Kovind, cen­ter, waves to me­dia upon ar­rival at the air­port.

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