In­dia to get head of state from low­est caste

Ram Nath Kovind is hot favourite to be elected on Mon­day as the coun­try’s 14th Pres­i­dent

Muscat Daily - - WORLD -

New Delhi, In­dia - In­dia’s next pres­i­dent will emerge from the Dalit caste - a com­mu­nity so marginalised they were once known as ‘un­touch­ables’ - with the vic­tory of the rul­ing party can­di­date set to strengthen Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi’s grip on power.

Ram Nath Kovind (71) is hot favourite to be elected on Mon­day by na­tional and state law­mak­ers to be­come tit­u­lar head-of-state as the can­di­date of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

It will be only the sec­ond time, af­ter Pres­i­dent K R Narayanan, who served from 1997 to 2002, that a mem­ber of the down­trod­den caste has as­sumed the post.

The re­sult will be an­nounced on Thurs­day. And for Modi, with one eye on re-elec­tion in 2019, it will send an im­por­tant mes­sage to a key, long dis­dained elec­toral group.

Dal­its, who num­ber around 200mn, are among the poor­est com­mu­ni­ties in In­dia and have tra­di­tion­ally been rel­e­gated to ac­tiv­i­ties on the mar­gins of so­ci­ety.

De­spite le­gal pro­tec­tion, dis­crim­i­na­tion is rife and Dal­its are rou­tinely de­nied ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tion and other op­por­tu­ni­ties for ad­vance­ment.

An­a­lysts say Modi can win po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal by help­ing BJP politi­cian Kovind - a for­mer Supreme Court lawyer and ex­gov­er­nor of the east­ern state of Bi­har - to win the con­test against op­po­si­tion nom­i­nee Meira Ku­mar, also a Dalit.

Modi has used Twit­ter to hail the rise of Kovind, the son of a farmer, from ‘a hum­ble back­ground’.

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, but the elec­toral col­lege num­bers are heav­ily tilted against her.

Her nom­i­na­tion, which fol­lowed Kovind’s, was seen by many as the op­po­si­tion’s at­tempt to counter Modi’s move to woo Dal­its.

Poor but pow­er­ful

Votes from the Dal­its and the BJP’s tra­di­tional Hindu base pro­pelled Modi to his 2014 landslide, es­pe­cially in the bat­tle­ground states of Ut­tar Pradesh and Bi­har.

“Ev­ery (In­dian) politi­cian would want sup­port from this 16 per cent vot­ing bloc for any elec- tion,” Vi­mal Tho­rat, an ac­tivist and con­venor of the Na­tional Cam­paign on Dalit Hu­man Rights, told AFP.

Dalit sup­port is even more im­por­tant for the BJP as it has mostly been shunned by Mus­lims, who make up about 14 per cent of the 1.3bn pop­u­la­tion.

Dalit votes sup­ple­mented by sup­port from the BJP’s right wing Hindu na­tion­al­ist fol­low­ers ‘will, for once and all, de­feat the ‘Mus­lim veto’ in this coun­try’, Nis­tula Heb­bar, po­lit­i­cal edi­tor of The Hindu news­pa­per, said.

“Dal­its as a com­mu­nity or a base are spread across the coun­try, es­pe­cially in all elec­torally im­por­tant states. Their vote is ex­tremely im­por­tant, es­pe­cially for the BJP,” Heb­bar said.

But re­ports of clashes and caste dis­crim­i­na­tion are rou­tine across the coun­try.

Au­thor­i­ties in BJP-ruled Ut­tar Pradesh state sent riot po­lice to Sa­ha­ran­pur dis­trict in May af­ter clashes be­tween Dal­its and up­per caste Hin­dus.

Vi­o­lent protests erupted in Modi’s home state Gu­jarat last year af­ter video footage emerged of an at­tack on four Dalit vil­lagers who were tak­ing a dead cow to be skinned.

Cows are con­sid­ered sa­cred by some Hin­dus and at­tacks by vig­i­lante groups on cow traders and smugglers have in­creased since Modi’s elec­tion.

Dal­its are com­monly tasked with jobs such as skin­ning cat­tle car­casses for their hides and the in­ci­dents have flagged in­her­ent ten­sions be­tween the BJP’s tra­di­tional base and its bid to reach out to lower caste vot­ers.

‘The in­creas­ing fric­tion be­tween up­per and lower castes in states like Gu­jarat, Ma­ha­rash­tra and UP has led to the rise of a young and op­po­si­tional Dalit lead­er­ship’, a Times of In­dia ed­i­to­rial said last month.

It added that Modi and his al­lies have ‘sought to re­gain ad­van­tage in this equa­tion with a Dalit pres­i­den­tial can­di­date’.

Ashok Ma­lik of the New Delhi based Ob­server Re­search Foun­da­tion think­tank told AFP that Kovind’s nom­i­na­tion was ‘a mile­stone’ for the BJP, which ‘is at its strong­est ever’ and poised to elect its choice of pres­i­dent even with­out any sup­port from op­po­si­tion law­mak­ers.

But Dal­its won­der whether the elec­tion of a pres­i­dent from their com­mu­nity - for the sec­ond time in two decades - will bring real change.

“Change will hap­pen only when the ev­ery­day prob­lems of the com­mu­nity are ad­dressed in line with our con­sti­tu­tion. When they are given jus­tice and the rules are im­ple­mented fairly and firmly,” Tho­rat said.

In­dia’s Prime Min­is­ter wields most of the 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.

(AFP)

This file photo shows Ram Nath Kovind (left), the Na­tional Demo­cratic Al­liance gov­ern­ments's can­di­date for the up­com­ing pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, leaves an NDA meeting with In­dian Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi (right) and top Bharatiya Janata Party leader L K Ad­vani (cen­tre), in New Delhi on June 23

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