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Ram Nath Kovind for President: What led to his nomination by BJP?

Sadiq Naqvi | Updated on: 19 June 2017, 19:02 IST

Ram Nath Kovind, who presently occupies the Raj Bhawan in Patna, is almost certain to take over as the next President of India. The BJP has sprung another surprise and put the Opposition, which was hoping to field a 'secular consensus candidate', on the back-foot. His name was not amongst those part of the speculative list of probable presidential candidates doing the rounds. Draupadi Murmu, the governor of Jharkhand, was said to be the frontrunner. 

Kovind, a Supreme Court lawyer, the longest serving president of the Kol Sabha, the community of Dalit weavers “should emerge as the consensus candidate,” a BJP leader claims unless, “they want to oppose his name just for the sake of opposition.” 

This leader claims that Opposition leaders like Bihar’s Chief Minister Nitish Kumar will find it difficult to oppose his candidature, since both of them are known to share a good rapport. And that this could isolate the Left which is keen on a Opposition candidate. Interestingly, Kovind's appointment as Governor without any consultation had taken Nitish by surprise in 2015 and left him unhappy, if reports are to believed. 

Opposition voices suggest that a contest is likely. And more so because Kovind is a BJP-VHP insider, not somebody who is from outside the fold. Meira Kumar, the Congress leader, former speaker and daughter of Jagjivan Ram could be the Opposition’s choice.

With numbers on their side, the BJP did not really have any compulsion for a consensus. However, it chose to put up the pretence by appointing a three member committee of senior leaders which met senior Opposition leaders, even though it did not discuss any name, as most of the Opposition leaders complained.

"Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spoken to Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh and other political leaders on the issue. The date for nomination will be set in consultation with Kovindji, but most likely it will be on June 23. We have simply informed other leaders. I am hoping for consensus on Kovind's candidature," BJP President Amit Shah said.

Who is Ram Nath Kovind?

The Bihar Governor has been a two-time Rajya Sabha MP after losing a Lok Sabha election. He was also BJP's national spokesperson and head of its Dalit Morcha. According to multiple leaders within the BJP, Kovind has been chosen keeping in mind two major concerns. One, to send a message to the Dalits, and two, to make sure the party performs well in the crucial 2019 Lok Sabha elections in Uttar Pradesh which sends 80 members to the Lower House. The strategy may or may not work, as has been seen in the past. He was appointed the Governor of Bihar three months before the crucial Assembly polls, which the party lost badly. However, the BJP is hopeful this time around.
“We have been successful in making inroads into the Dalit vote bank across the country which used to be traditionally aligned with the Congress or recently with other outfits like the Mayawati’s BSP. We have to make sure that votebank does not drift away,” a BJP leader tries to reason.
Lately, BJP has given enough reasons for the Dalits to feel a sense of alienation. From Una in Gujarat to Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh, there have been several atrocities against Dalits under BJP rule.

A section of Dalits, felt shortchanged after voting for the BJP in UP.

“Dalits are a pan-India constituency,” another BJP leader reasons, stating that nominating Kovind will have implications across the country.
In the recently concluded Assembly elections in UP, a large chunk of Dalit voters including a percentage of the Jatavs, who are usually with the BSP, chose the BJP. If BJP has to win the 2019 Lok Sabha conclusively, it needs to maintain the 2017 momentum.
“UP is the most important state electorally, the leadership realises it,” says the BJP leader adding how Kovind as President would tick all the right boxes. “There is a fear that all the Opposition parties may gang-up against us in 2019. We need the Dalits on our side to be firmly in the race,” the BJP leader says.

Kolis, the Dalit community to which Kovind belongs come third in terms of numbers in the Dalit population of the state.
Kovind, the 71-year-lawyer who worked with the VHP’s lawyer’s wing before joining the BJP comes from Kanpur. From a farmer’s family with little landholdings, Kovind studied law in Kanpur before coming to Delhi.
Kovind’s humble background could come in handy for image building at a time when the BJP is reeling under serious protests from the farmers. After the announcement by BJP President Amit Shah, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took to twitter.
“Shri Ram Nath Kovind, a farmer’s son, comes from a humble background. He devoted his life to public service & worked for the poor and marginalised,” he tweeted.
Apparently like the Prime Minister, he is known to start his day with Yoga, and does not eat meat.
Meanwhile, a BJP functionary also explained why Murmu did not make the cut. “Murmu, the female tribal face may not have worked with the Dalits.” But this party functionary says she could again be the frontrunner in the list of people being considered for the post of vice-president which falls vacant in August.
The saffron party had a long list of contenders for the post of the President. However, in the run-up most of them were nearly eliminated. For example, the court’s order to reopen criminal conspiracy charges against LK Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi, shut the doors of the Rashtrapati Bhawan on them for now.

Three other senior ministers in the Cabinet, Venkaiah Naidu, Arun Jaitley and Rajnath Singh, were made part of the committee which would reach out to the Opposition, eliminating them from the race. That left only External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj on the list of probables. She, too, seemed to have known that she may not make the cut when she rejected talks of her name doing the rounds as  rumours. “I am the external affairs minister and you are asking me something which is an internal matter," she said
A BJP leader says Kovind is known to operate largely under the radar, does not have the image of a hardline Hindutva leader, all of which make him an appropriate choice for the party leadership to occupy the Rashtrapati Bhawan. “He does not have any scandal, scam or a criminal case to give anybody a handle to oppose his candidature,” the BJP leader says.

First published: 19 June 2017, 18:57 IST