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Ram Nath Kovind: The First Citizen as a Forceful Unifier

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Quiet dignity

ON JUNE 23RD, 2017, when the 71-year-old Ram Nath Kovind filed his nomination for the presidential poll, it was perhaps one of the many unexpected turns in his 40-year- old career as a lawyer, politician and, lately, state governor. In the days that followed, two themes dominated stories and commentaries on the man, both in India and abroad. The foreign press displayed an overt interest in his Dalit background and how Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP had shrewdly used him as a symbol for securing a political advantage. Domestically, the emphasis was on his RSS background, with bits and pieces about his being an ‘unknown’ person and some sundry stuff rounding it all off. These polarities illustrated the man and his persona.

In contrast to what has been written about him, the pictures of Kovind canvassing legislators in different state capitals and in the company of NDA leaders in Parliament are more revealing. The impression one gets is of a person who is slightly hesitant and gentle at the same time. Perhaps these qualities build into each other. People who have known him during different phases of his career testify to his gentleness.

The basic facts of his life are well known: birth in a humble family in the United Provinces (as Uttar Pradesh was then known), school and university in Kanpur district, and the beginning of a legal career at 32 in New Delhi. In between came attempts at becoming a civil servant, and marriage. At first sight, his career as a lawyer—the 16 years spent in legal practice at Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court—made it look like that he would follow the usual path: lawyer, senior lawyer, legal service for government and perhaps, finally, a judicial career. Instead, this period was interspersed with failed attempts to become a legislator in Uttar Pradesh. The possibility of a judicial career probably ended in 1994 when he became a member of the Rajya Sabha, representing UP in the Upper House. Here, he served for two terms before trying once again to become an MLA from his home state. That did not click either.

Beyond his ‘dalitness’, it is perhaps his ability to do quiet work and build bridges across deepening political divides that has worked in his favour

The next turn came after a hiatus of almost eight years, in 2015 when he was appointed the Governor of Bihar. In all these years, as a struggling lawyer and when he became an MP, the one quality that everyone remembers Kovind for is his kind demeanour. This was in addition to hard work as a lawyer when he championed the cause of Dalits and other downtrodden communities. These days, it is common for conspiracy theorists and commentators to talk about how the BJP is trying to ‘subvert’ the Dalit cause. No one remembers the days of the then relatively unknown Dalit Morcha of BJP and the first Dalits who joined the party when the Bahujan Samaj Party was considered the ‘future’ for all politically ambitious members of this community.

These personal qualities that endeared him to many, no doubt, endowed Kovind and his party, the BJP, with a political advantage in the phase of his career as a governor. By then, he was a seasoned politician who knew what it takes to run things. It is almost a norm to witness spats between a governor and a chief minister in most Indian states. This conflict is part political and part constitutional: usually considered ‘creatures of the Centre’, governors are viewed with suspicion in opposition-run state capitals.

When Kovind was appointed to the Raj Bhavan in Patna in August 2015, memories of the bitter separation between Nitish Kumar and the NDA were fresh. The preceding months had seen sparks fly in Raj Bhavans from Mumbai to Aizawl as the Union Government went about the task of shuffling governors and appointing new ones. In this charged atmosphere, Kovind’s appointment went largely unnoticed.

But in roughly two intervening years, this ‘silence’ had much political salience for later events. One close observer of Bihar’s politics in Patna, who does not wish to be named, says that Kovind being sent to Patna was more than a mere political accident in the game of governors played by every new Government in New Delhi. “Look at the other governors in some states. The relationship between the Chief Minister and the Governor is fraught at the best of times and for most it is antagonistic. Nothing of that sort has been seen in Bihar between Kovind and Nitish Kumar. Perhaps the powers that be did not want relations between the Governor and Kumar to go bad. Kovind fit that bill very well,” the source said.

There are others in the province who served with Kovind in the Rajya Sabha and remember him as a thorough gentleman. A former MP, who is now a legislator from a rival party in Bihar, is all praise for him: “I served with [Kovind] on a Rajya Sabha committee. He was very courteous and never let party divisions come in the way of relations with colleagues in Parliament. This ensured that work did not suffer from partisan bickering.”

Beyond his ‘Dalitness’, it is perhaps his ability to do quiet work and build bridges across deepening political divides that has worked in his favour—from a very humble beginning to being the First Citizen of India. Ordinarily, the position of the President is ceremonial. But there is now a sufficient number of instances where the President has had to intervene at key moments in India’s political history. Some have reinforced the hope that constitutional propriety shall be upheld, while others are best forgotten. At crucial moments, holders of that office have displayed a wide range of behaviour—ambition, petulance and calm. The last attribute is perhaps the one that this high office most needs, at all times. It won’t surprise many if Kovind spends his time in the Rashtrapati Bhavan quietly, watching for the most part, and acting only when necessary. His life’s record points in that direction.