20/07/2017 4:23 PM IST | Updated 20/07/2017 10:49 PM IST

In Ram Nath Kovind, India Gets Its Second Dalit President

Kovind is the second Dalit leader and the first politician linked to the RSS to become President.

Amit Dave / Reuters

Earlier this year, Ram Nath Kovind and his family were denied entry to the Retreat Residence of the President of India in Shimla. He was told to seek permission from the Rashtrapati Bhawan.

In a country where politicians readily express their sense of entitlement, Kovind, who was the governor of Bihar at the time, did the opposite. His decision to quietly withdraw from the scene instead of making a fuss is what people remembered. "He did not mind," an official recalled.

Such is fate that two months later, Kovind can call the presidential retreat and the Rashtrapati Bhawan his home. The 71-year-old leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was elected today to be the 14th President of India.

He received 65.65 percent votes from lawmakers across the country, beating hollow his opponent, Meira Kumar, former Lok Sabha speaker and Congress Party leader, who is also a Dalit.

Kovind is the second Dalit leader after K.R. Narayanan and the first politician linked to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to become the Head of State and the Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Armed Forces. He is also the first leader from Uttar Pradesh to occupy the highest constitutional position in the country.

Kovind, a lawyer by profession and the father of two children, hails from Kanpur. He joined the BJP in 1991 after working for over 20 years as a government advocate in the Delhi High Court and Supreme Court.

While Kovind is linked to the RSS, the nature and extent of his connection with the Hindu nationalist organisation is unclear. BJP's national general secretary Ram Madhav has written that Kovind had joined the RSS and the Jana Sangh. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who backed Kovind's nomination, has said that he is "not a RSS swayamsewak," but briefly joined the organisation during the early nineties. Kovind, however, is not regarded as a Hindutva hardliner.

The BJP's electoral strength in parliament and state assemblies, combined with the support of its allies, had guaranteed an easy win for Kovind.

His nomination, one month earlier, was viewed as yet another move by the BJP to shed its upper caste image and bolster its growing strength in the Dalit community, with an eye on the 2019 general election.

There were few who had heard of Kovind until he was nominated as the BJP's presidential candidate on 19 June. Politicians and the public alike asked, "Kovind, who?" His once skeletal Wikipedia entry has expanded over the past few weeks, but only by a few nuggets of information. It is still the case that not a lot is known about the president, especially how he thinks and what he represents.

The picture of Kovind that has emerged is of an understated man, who has for decades played by the rules, steered clear of controversy, while steadily climbing the rungs of the BJP.

While he is admired for his work ethic, mild manners and decency, few find him to be either brilliant or charismatic. But somewhere down the road, Kovind had caught the attention of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who singled him out during the campaign for the 2015 Bihar Assembly election. "Shriman Ram Nath Kovindji has given his all to the welfare of the oppressed, the dispossessed, the Dalit, the backward and the extremely backward, all his life," Modi said at the time.

READ: BJP's Choice Of 'Dalit Leader' Ram Nath Kovind As President Shows We Can Never Be Free Of Identity Politics

Dalit versus Dalit

Modi chose Kovind over BJP veterans including Lal Krishna Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi, who have been sidelined since the former chief minister of Gujarat emerged as the undisputed leader of the BJP ahead of the 2014 general election.

The PM's decision to pick a Dalit candidate has gone down as a masterstroke. Not only did it silence the party veterans, it also silenced rivals who did not want to be seen opposing a Dalit candidate. As Union Minister and Lok Janshakti Party chief Ram Vilas Paswan put it, "If they don't support, it would mean they are anti-Dalits."

How could Bahujan Samaj Party Maywati, for instance, oppose a Dalit candidate from UP? In the aftermath of Kovind's nomination, the Congress Party's decision to field Meira Kumar, another Dalit, came across as an ill-thought out and reactionary move.

While the Congress Party failed to unite the Opposition behind Kumar, support for Kovind came from unexpected quarters including the Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar who heads the Janata Dal (United), Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav and his brother Shivpal Yadav.

Although both the BJP and the Congress Party denied playing identity politics, the presidential election morphed into a Dalit versus Dalit contest. Kumar chose to call it a battle of ideologies.

"Earlier, the presidential election used to be a fight between two individuals. For the first time, it is going to be a contest between two ideologies," she said. "I respect Kovindji, my fight is not against him, but against his ideology."

READ: Why Meira Kumar Is A Terrible Choice As Opposition's Presidential Candidate

Peepal tree to Bihar Governor

Kovind was born into a Dalit family in the village of Paraunkh in Kanpur on October 1, 1945. His family belongs to the community of Koris, who have traditionally been weavers. They owned no land. His father, Maikulal Kori, raised nine children on the money he earned running a small grocery store.

From his first lessons under a peepal tree and walking eight kilometers every day to get to high school, Kovind worked his way up to becoming a lawyer. He cracked the Indian Administrative Services exam in his third attempt, getting selected for the allied service. He chose to practice law instead.

While BJP president Amit Shah had described Kovind as belonging to a "poor Dalit family," Pyarelal, Kovind's elder brother, told the media that their father was the "Chaudhary of Paraunkh village," and they lived a normal life in a middle class family.

Deepak, Kovind's nephew, toldThe Indian Express that his uncle had denied favors to his family members, encouraging them to work hard instead.His nephew quoted Kovind as saying, "Maine jaise swayam safalta paayi, vaise tum log bhi mehnat karo." (I have achieved success by working hard, you should do the same).

From 1977 to 1979, Kovind was an advocate for the central government in the Delhi High Court. It was around this time that he also worked as the personal assistant for Morarji Desai, who formed the first non-Congress government since India gained independence. Kovind then went on to represent the central government in the Supreme Court from 1980 to 1993.

After two decades of lawyering, Kovind spent the next 12 years as a member of the Rajya Sabha, getting elected from UP in 1994 and 2000.

Kovind's interventions in Rajya Sabha provide some insight into the man who is now president. In addition to championing the reservation of Scheduled Castes, Kovind came down heavily against the explosion of satellite television channels during the nineties and the "cultural invasion by foreign channels." He spoke against adult movies and uncensored content on these channel, and expressed concern about children wasting most of their time watching television. He also complained when the format of the popular music show Chitrahar on Doordarshan was changed, claiming that it was "not liked by the masses."

READ: What We Know About Ram Nath Kovind From His Rajya Sabha Interventions

Thoughts on caste discrimination and minorities

In the BJP, Kovind remained in the background but he held some important positions including the chief of the Scheduled Caste Morcha from 1998 to 2002 and the national spokesperson of the party in 2010.

A report prepared by US embassy interlocutors, published by Wikileaks in 2011, provide some insight into Kovind's thoughts on caste discrimination when he headed the BJP's Dalit Morcha. Kovind, according to the report, said that "open" discrimination against Dalits had decreased dramatically over the last decade, but it would exist for the next 50-100 years. He also said that since caste was condoned by religion, it would take longer to beat than racial discrimination in the US.

Kovind also said that the true basis of discrimination is economic in nature rather than caste-based, as the "haves discriminate against the have nots" and use the caste system to perpetuate differences between economic groups.

As a non-Jatav Dalit, the party once regarded him as a candidate to challenge Mayawati's caste politics, but the Brahmin lobby in the state didn't let him get very far. He campaigned in Dalit areas in the 2012 Assembly election in UP. In 2014, Kovind was once again called upon to mobilize the Dalit vote during the general election. It was at this time that BJP President Amit Shah reportedly noticed his dedication and discipline. In 2015, Modi chose him to be the Governor of Bihar.

The news came as a surprise to the Bihar CM who was not consulted over the appointment and heard about it in the media. But the two men developed a healthy working relationship over the past two years. Kumar even broke rank with the Opposition and came out strongly in favor of the BJP's presidential nominee. "Kovind has discharged his duties in an unbiased manner as the Bihar governor. He has worked as per the Constitution and upheld the dignity of the governor's post. His was an ideal relation with the state government," Kumar said, last month.

The only time that Kovind came into the national spotlight during his governorship in Bihar was when he interrupted RJD chief Lalu Prasad Yadav's son Tej Pratap during the latter's swearing in ceremony. "It's apekshit (expected), not upekshit (neglected)," he told the young lawmaker.

Kovind has rarely spoken to the media in the past several years. After the BJP announced him to be its presidential nominee, however, the remarks that he made as the party spokesperson in 2010 were back in circulation.

At the time, Kovind had opposed reservation in government for backward sections of religious minorities in India, and described Islam and Christianity as "alien to the nation." Making his case against quotas for Muslims and Christians in 2010, Kovind had argued that Dalit Christians and Muslims get better education in convent schools.

"The educational level of Scheduled Caste children remains much lower than that of convert Dalits and Muslims. The children of converts will grab major share of reservation in government jobs. They would become eligible to contest elections on seats reserved for Scheduled Castes. This would encourage conversion and fatally destroy the fabric of Indian society," he said.

READ: BJP's Presidential Candidate Once Said 'Islam And Christianity Are Alien To The Nation'

The RSS connection

Those who were critical of Kovind's nomination have argued that it was antithetical to have a person associated with the RSS take up the highest constitutional position in the country. Several RSS stalwarts have in the past expressed contempt for the Constitution, its principles and the national flag, calling instead for the Manusmriti to be followed. Former RSS chief M.S. Golwalkar even wrote, "Let the Constitution be re-examined and re-drafted, so as to establish [a] Unitary form of Government."

While Kovind is closely connected with top RSS leaders, according to reports, he is widely regarded to be a moderate.

His association with the RSS in part is on account of his work with partner organizations that provide healthcare to poor communities. One such group is the Divya Prem Sewa Mission in Haridwar, run by RSS pracharak Aashish Gautam to help lepers and their families. Kovind reportedly made a donation of ₹25 lakh to the mission in 2000 and since then he has sponsored the education of at least two or three children of leprosy patients, every year.

While many regard the role of the president of India as titular, without any real power, there are presidents such as the late APJ Abdul Kalam and Pranab Mukherjee who emerged as the conscience keepers of the country.

Over the past year, for instance, Mukherjee has repeatedly spoken out against the violence suffered by minorities, Dalits and African nationals. He has underlined the need for free speech and room to allow for dissenting opinions in universities. While speaking on nationalism, earlier this year, he said, "There should be no room in India for the intolerant Indian. India has been since ancient times a bastion of free thought, speech and expression."

Whether Kovind sticks up for free speech and the secular values enshrined in the Constitution remains to be seen. He certainly has some large shoes to fill.

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