Ram Nath Kovind: Man from India's 'Untouchable' Dalit caste expected become the president

Two candidates from the lowest rank of India's traditional caste system are facing off for the post

Samuel Osborne
Monday 17 July 2017 13:51 BST
Supporters of Ram Nath Kovind, present him with a garland during a welcoming ceremony as part of his nation-wide tour, in Ahmedabad, India
Supporters of Ram Nath Kovind, present him with a garland during a welcoming ceremony as part of his nation-wide tour, in Ahmedabad, India (REUTERS/Amit Dave)

A man from India's lower-caste Dalit (Untouchable) community is expected to be elected president.

Ram Nath Kovind, 71, is the former governor of the eastern state of Bihar.

The Dalits are the lowest rank of India's traditional caste system, and were traditionally considered "impure" and pushed to the margins of Indian society.

Mr Kovind is an associate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or National Volunteer Corps, a Hindu group that has long been accused of stoking religious hatred against Muslims.

The group is also the ideological parent of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP, which controls enough seats in federal and state legislatures to push its favoured candidate.

The votes will be counted on Thursday, and Mr Kovind expected to win easily.

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The president's role is largely ceremonial but as the custodian of the constitution, the president has played an important role in times of uncertainty, such as a hung parliament.

Mr Kovind is facing Meira Kumar, a former parliament speaker and a fellow-Dalit backed by the opposition Congress party.

Mr Modi, among the first to cast his vote in parliament, said he looked forward to working with Mr Kovind.

"My government will offer full cooperation to him," he told members of parliament from the ruling coalition.

Mr Kovind's likely victory is expected to help Mr Modi and the BJP consolidate even greater political power.

Some presidents, such as outgoing President Pranab Mukherjee, have tried to act as conscience-keepers, using their constitutional authority as the head of state to defend India's founding principles as a secular, diverse democracy.

Mr Modi's rivals say minority Muslims have feared for their wellbeing and have been targeted by fringe Hindu groups since he took office in 2014.

Sonia Gandhi, the head of the Congress party, appealed to members of parliament to vote for Ms Kumar to protect India's secular 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," she said.

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