Politics

Ram Nath Kovind: First Person Singular

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It is not his Dalit identity alone that makes Ram Nath Kovind an ideal presidential choice

JUNE 19th WAS like any other day at Raj Bhavan in Patna. Ram Nath Kovind, the then Governor of Bihar, was back from his morning walk and sipped green tea as his assistant read out the day’s plan. He had a few meetings lined up, among them an interaction with a group of school students who would brief him on the preparations for International Yoga Day. Everything was going as per schedule, until a phone call came. It was BJP President Amit Shah. Shah briefed him on developments in the Capital and asked him to pack his bags. Kovind summoned his staff. All the engagements of the day were cancelled. One of his close aides asked: “Is there any special news, sir?” Kovind smiled. “Wait for some time. It will be on TV.” At 2 pm, Shah announced Ram Nath Kovind’s presidential candidacy. The NDA had decided to field the 71-year- old for the post, he declared at the party headquarters on Ashoka Road.

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar—who, it is worthwhile to recall, had publicly opposed Kovind’s appointment as Governor— was the first to pay him a visit. “He has done exemplary work as Governor of Bihar. He worked with impartiality and maintained an ideal relationship with the state government,” Kumar said after the announcement. Greetings and congratulatory messages are still pouring in. Kovind is expected to win comfortably; he has the numbers on his side. The opposition has also nominated a Dalit—former Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar—as their choice for President.

Born in rural Kanpur, Kovind has crossed many political milestones without much ado and is now set to become the highest custodian of the Indian Constitution. The moment his name was announced by the NDA, he started trending in Google searches. “In politics you never know what is in store for you. I believe in executing the duties assigned to me in every role,” he told a journalist who asked him if he saw this coming. “I thank the party leadership for choosing me. More than an honour, it is a responsibility to deliver.” Barring any surprises, Kovind will be the 14th President of India and the second Dalit President after KR Narayanan. “There is a difference between Kovind and Narayanan,” says Rakesh Sinha, an RSS ideologue who is a close friend of Kovind’s. “Narayanan was part of the Indian bureaucracy, while Kovind is a product of social and political movements.”

Ram Nath Kovind’s father Maiku Lal ran a small kirana shop in Paraukh, a village 110 km from Kanpur city. Born into the Kori (a Dalit sub-caste) community on October 1st, 1945, Kovind was the youngest of five brothers and two sisters. A childhood friend, Jaswant Singh, recalls that when Kovind was four or five years old, the family’s hut caught fire. “His mother died in the fire, and his father has been taking care of the family since,” says Singh, a classmate of Kovind’s from the government primary school in Khanpur, Sandalpur block. “The school was about 6 km from our village and we would walk the 12 km to and from school every day,” he adds. A sincere student, Kovind was also spiritually inclined, thanks to his father who read out the Ramayana to him and distributed religious books in the village.

Within a week of Kovind taking office as Bihar’s Governor in 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi acknowedged his contributions and commitment to the cause of Dalits and marginalised communities

Kovind went to DAV College Kanpur to study commerce and followed it up with an LLB from DAV Law College. His association with the RSS began during this period. “He was not regular in attending the shakha,” says retired teacher Raj Kishor Singh, Kovind’s childhood friend. “More than attending the shakha, he was inspired by the thoughts and knowledge shared during these meetings.” Kovind later went to Delhi to prepare for the civil services. Successful in his third attempt, he was selected for the Allied Services but did not enlist, instead enrolling as an advocate with the Bar Council of Delhi in 1971. His law practice brought him in touch with the socialist movement and he soon became close to Morarji Desai. On May 30th, 1974, when he married a girl named Savita, Desai attended the wedding. Post-Emergency, when the Janata Party Government was formed in 1977 under Desai, Kovind became his personal assistant. He was also the Centre’s advocate in the Delhi High Court. From 1980 to 1993, he served as a standing counsel for the Central Government.

THE RAM MANDIR movement drew Kovind towards the BJP. He made the acquaintance of Kalyan Singh, then a senior BJP leader in Uttar Pradesh, and formally joined the party in 1991. Rakesh Sinha recalls an interesting story Kovind told him. Sometime in the early 90s, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was in Lucknow for a meeting. Kovind greeted the senior leader with ‘Jai Sri Ram’, but did not get an answer. When he mustered the courage to ask Vajpayee what was wrong, the leader replied, “I got you in the party to say ‘Jai Bhim’ and you have started chanting ‘Jai Sri Ram’.” They had a good laugh, but in all seriousness, Kovind was being groomed to become the BJP’s Dalit face in UP. Firebrand leaders like Vinay Katiyar and Uma Bharti were the voices of the season, but Kovind worked silently behind the scenes to expand the party base. He contested the Assembly elections twice—from Ghatampur and Bhognipur—and lost both times. But what he lacked in popularity, he made up for with his organisational skills. Kalyan Singh recognised this and decided to send Kovind to the Rajya Sabha.

“Kovind doesn’t represent a section of society, he represents the majority of Indians. He is a lot like Prime Minister Modi in this sense. They both broke conventional political and social barriers” - Ram Madhav, BJP general secretary

In October 1994, Kovind became an MP for the first time. Kovind’s nomination to the Rajya Sabha marked the beginning of his rise in the BJP at the national level. By then, his family had moved to Indira Nagar in Kanpur. When in town, Kovind kept a low profile, but never refused to meet people, especially Dalits, in need. He was quick to offer help and gave away hand pumps—which was in great demand those days— and other necessities, and became popular among Dalits even as local BJP leaders ignored him, says Shiv Prasad Sonekar, a spokesperson for the UP BJP SC cell who has been closely associated with Kovind since 2005. When the BJP came to power at the Centre in 1998, Kovind was made president of the SC wing. In October 2002, he represented India in the United Nations and addressed the UN Assembly. His work as a parliamentarian earned him a second term in the Rajya Sabha. In 2010, he became a national spokesperson for the party. That same year, he played an active role in the return of Uma Bharti to the BJP. Bharti had left the party in 2003 to form her own. Kovind brokered peace between her and LK Advani, ultimately resulting in her return.

But his political career wasn’t without blips. In 2013, ahead of the Lok Sabha election, he was sent back to Uttar Pradesh to serve as general secretary of the state BJP. “It was a demotion—from national spokesperson to state general secretary—but he didn’t take it that way,” says Sonekar. “He was happy with the role assigned to him.”

In December 2013, he took up a house on rent in the Jalaun Lok Sabha constituency and started working in the area. “We spent two to three months working there hoping he would get a ticket,” says Sonekar. Jalaun is a reserved constituency bordering Kanpur rural, and Kovind thought he stood a good chance. But he was denied a party ticket. Party general secretary in-charge of UP, Amit Shah persuaded him not to contest and Kovind obliged, campaigning for the party’s candidate from Jalaun—Bhanu Pratap Singh, who won by a margin of more than 250,000 votes. Post the elections, Kovind was elevated to the post of BJP national general secretary. In August 2015, he became the 36th Governor of Bihar. Kovind’s hard work and equanimity had finally paid off. Within a week of taking office as Governor, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at an election rally in Arah, Bihar, acknowledged Kovind’s contributions and commitment in his speech: “Kovind ji has spent his entire life working for Dalits and marginalised communities.” Perhaps it was a hint that Kovind was destined for a greater role.

“Kovindji has done exemplary work as Governor of Bihar. He worked with impartiality and maintained an ideal relationship with the state government” - Nitish Kumar, chief minister of Bihar

THE DALIT IDENTITY is a precious commodity in politics, especially today, but Kovind did not wear it on his sleeve. “He did not play the victim card nor did he hint at hailing from a marginalised section of society,” says Rajnath Singh Surya, former BJP Rajya Sabha MP who worked closely with him. “He is a self-made man who earned his place through knowledge, hard work and discipline,” Surya says, and recalls how during Parliament sessions, Kovind would call him up every morning to discuss the proceedings of the day. “Whenever there was a legal or a Constitutional issue in the Rajya Sabha, two people from the BJP took the lead. One was TN Chaturvedi and the other was Kovind.” On March 3rd, 2006, while speaking on the Contempt of Courts (Amendment) Bill, 2006, moved by the then Law Minister Hansraj Bhardwaj, Kovind was unsparing in his defence of the value of criticism in a democracy. “If any citizen of this country can criticise the President of India for his wrong-doing, I don’t think it could be valid if the judiciary is exempted. If the appointing authority of judges, the President, could be censured, so could the judiciary,” he said.

As Governor, Kovind was known for one thing. Whoever visited him—be it his counterparts, chief ministers, government officials— would be gifted a golden statuette of Buddha. Even on May 29th, when he was in Shimla for his friend and Himachal Pradesh Governor Acharya Dev Vrat’s wedding anniversary, it was the Buddha statuette Kovind presented. A Raj Bhavan official says Kovind made sure a stock of these idols was always kept available.

“There is no ambiguity in his thought and political understanding and he does not hesitate to express his views,” says Sinha. On one occasion in 2010, when Sinha shared the dais with him, Kovind was asked to speak on the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities, also known as the Ranganath Misra Commission, which had recommended 10 per cent reservation for Muslims and 5 per cent for other minorities in government jobs. The Commission had also advocated delinking Scheduled Caste status from religion and bringing Muslims, Christians, Jains and Parsis under the SC net. Kovind spoke against it and backed it with this argument: “The educational level of Scheduled Caste children remains much lower than that of convert Dalits and Muslims. The children of converts will grab a 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.” Another time, when the then UP Chief Minister Mayawati was busy erecting statues of Dalit icons (including herself) in the state, Kovind made a sharp attack on her. “The ruling Bahujan Samaj Party has nothing to do with the ideology of BR Ambedkar who always opposed the idolisation of a person,” he told media persons on April 11th, 2010 ,in Lucknow. “Dr Ambedkar was not in favour of installing statues.”

Kovind’s commitment to Constitutional values is well recognised. His interruption of Tej Pratap Yadav’s oath is unforgettable. During the swearing-in ceremony of ministers in November 2015, Tej Pratap, the elder son of Lalu Prasad, wrongly pronounced the Hindi word ‘apekshit’ (expected) as ‘upekshit’ (deserted). Kovind corrected him and made him take the oath a second time.

In November 2016, when the Bihar Assembly passed the Bihar Lokayukta (Amendment) Bill 2016 and sent it to the Governor for approval, Kovind returned the Bill for reconsideration as there was no time frame mentioned for the selection of the Lokayukta. ‘The process for selecting the Lokayukta and its members cannot be allowed to continue for an indefinite period as it will provide an opening for seepage of distrust and will also give an opportunity to the people at large to raise a shadow of doubt over the efficacy and authority of the constitution of the Lokayukta as an independent body to conduct inquiries related to corruption and misuse of official position by persons sitting in higher positions,’ read his message.

BJP General Secretary Ram Madhav says Kovind’s nomination for the highest office is not about caste. “Kovind doesn’t represent a caste or a section of the society. He represents the majority of Indians,” he says. “He is a lot like Prime Minister Modi in this sense. They both broke conventional political and social barriers, rising to the occasion.”

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