Millions of lower-caste Indians pin hopes on president-elect

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India's president-elect, Ram Nath Kovind, arrives at a ceremony following his victory, in New Delhi, India, on July 20, 2017. Photo Reuters / Adnan Abidi

Millions of dalits – underprivileged Indians – are pinning their hopes on a better life after Ram Nath Kovind takes office as the country’s 14th president on July 25.

Thanking voters, Kovind, who won the presidential election by a huge margin when the result was announced on Thursday, said he would represent all hardworking people. He also recalled his childhood spent in a mud house in Paraunkha village near Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, and the leaking roof that caused trouble for his family during incessant rains.

If his words of thanks reflect his character, Kovind – unknown to many before now – seems a down-to-earth person who upholds high values and genuinely cares for the poor.

For villagers in Paraunkha, his victory was like the festival of lights, Diwali, and festival of colors, Holi, coming all at once. The village witnessed jubilant scenes with people dancing, singing and distributing sweets.

Kovind’s victory caps a series of appointments by Prime Minister Narendra Modi that are seen as strengthening the grip of India’s Hindu right on public offices. Critics of Mr Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have long accused it of a bias against the country’s Muslims.

The office of president is largely a ceremonial one in India, however – and the officer-bearer is expected to be above caste and politics. Kovind will be tasked with protecting the Indian Constitution and the fundamental rights of her 1.3 billion citizens, including dalits and Muslims.

His elevation as president comes at a time when attacks against both are on the rise.

Kovind, a former member of the BJP, was hand-picked by Modi, who has spoken of his own modest upbringing, in which he helped his father sell tea to passengers at a railway station in his home state of Gujarat. Kovind may soon have a deputy, Venkiah Naidu, also chosen by Modi, who hails from a poor family in Chavatapalem village in Andhra’s Nellore district.

Dalits hope Kovind, Modi, and Naidu (if he is elected as vice-president) can work together to speed up social reforms. This is a reasonable hope, since the BJP has a comfortable majority in Parliament to approve or amend bills to ensure millions of dalits – formerly referred to as “untouchables” – get proper sanitation, education, jobs, health care and protection from attacks by upper caste Hindus.

Since Kovind ceases to be a dalit after becoming president, he cannot be pressured to giving assent to bills to favor dalits in any unfair way. However, he can be pro-active in suggesting plans for their well-being

In India, 45% of dalits remain illiterate, 35% poor, over 50% homeless and 54% malnourished, while many lack the use of proper toilets. Despite stringent laws, they are often attacked by upper caste Hindus such as Rajputs and Thakurs. Such attacks have on occasion sparked bloody riots, as in Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh this year.

Hardline “cow vigilantes” and anti-social elements are lynching dalits and Muslims in BJP-ruled Haryana, Jharkhand and Rajasthan, thereby spreading fear and unrest. A bill has been tabled in Parliament to prevent mob lynching and to jail public servants over acts of omission.

While condemning all forms of vigilantism, the federal government told the Supreme Court on Friday that stopping violence by cow protection groups is the responsibility of states where such incidents occur.

In this scenario, dalits expect a more assertive president to bat for them by suggesting Modi take steps for their safety. Since Kovind ceases to be a dalit after becoming president, he cannot be pressured to giving assent to bills to favor dalits in any unfair way. However, he can be pro-active in suggesting plans for their well-being.

Kovind’s real test will come when dealing with sensitive political matters. With national elections coming in 2019, the BJP may try to pressure him to give his assent to bills aimed at favoring particular sections of the electorate. His decisions will be crucial if events reach crisis-point on the India-China or India-Pakistan borders.

Political implications

The 65.5% share of the vote polled by Kovind exposes growing division among opposition parties, who had supposedly been planning a grand new coalition against the Modi government. Initial analysis shows nearly 50 opposition lawmakers cross-voted, in eight states, for Kovind. In Gujarat, at least eight Congress party MLAs cross-voted, leading to speculation of an imminent split in the party.

A Congress grandee – the former chief minister of Gujarat, Shankersinh Vaghela – may soon leave the party to form a third front or else return to the BJP ahead of state assembly elections. Vaghela said on Friday that Congress should examine closely why so many of its lawmakers had cross-voted.

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