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Opinion | India’s 14th President Ram Nath Kovind Has His Task Cut Out

Ram Nath Kovind receives a bouquet from Prime Minister Narendra Modi as BJP chief Amit Shah looks on during NDA meeting recently. (File photo/PTI)

Ram Nath Kovind receives a bouquet from Prime Minister Narendra Modi as BJP chief Amit Shah looks on during NDA meeting recently. (File photo/PTI)

Ram Nath Kovind will be India’s second Dalit President, and the first with a tenuous Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) link to occupy country’s top constitutional post.

New Delhi: For 71-year-old president-elect Ram Nath Kovind the easy part is as good as done and dusted. Given NDA'S numerical might in the electoral college including the Lok Sabha and many state Assemblies and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personal outreach to parties outside the NDA fold, his election was all but a foregone conclusion. Kovind’s Dalit credentials further cemented his winnability.

Kovind’s real challenge begins when he enters the grand portals of Rashtrapati Bhavan on July 25. He will be India’s second Dalit President, and the first with a tenuous Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) link to occupy country’s top constitutional post.

While both these factors - being a Dalit and his RSS linkages - were a key factor for getting him the top job, these very aspects of his background will possibly pose the toughest challenge in his career as the country’s President.

There’s a long list of former RSS functionaries who now occupy Governor and Lieutenant Governor offices. But Kovind’s elevation is different in that he will assume the top office of the country. His saffron background will ensure that every action he takes while discharging his constitutional obligations and duties will be under close scrutiny for political partisanship.

Mr. Kovind’s biggest challenge on this front will come after the general election of 2019 when PM Modi will be up for re-election. While BJP under Modi-Shah duo appears invincible today, there’s no guarantee for the same in the next Lok Sabha polls when opposition parties may come together to challenge Modi’s juggernaut with a Mahagathbandhan.

Kovind will have to display a non-partisan approach. He’ll have to forget who voted for his presidency and who did not, and follow the principle of inviting the largest party or alliance to form the next government.

Another reason, experts believe, Kovind made the cut from among other BJP leaders was his Dalit caste. His nomination was seen as BJP’s attempt to wipe off the anti-Dalit party tag, acquired after the series of ‘gau rakshak’ attacks on Dalits.

The gulf between the Dalit community and the BJP, which started with Rohit Vemula’s suicide, and has started to threaten the party’s non-Jatav votes that of late was gradually gravitating towards the BSP.

Kovind as the upholder of constitutional norms must ensure that a Dalit in Rashtrapati Bhavan goes beyond symbolism and tokenism. He must ensure against becoming a mere instrument for garnering Dalit votes for the party he once belonged to.

Even at the risk of becoming unpopular for a minute section, Kovind will have to speak his mind against acts of bigotry in society.

While discharging his constitutional duties Kovind will be vested with many legislative powers including giving his nod to various bills passed by Parliament to become the law of the land.

He will have to be awake and vigilant to ensure that the brute majority of the government of the day does not bulldoze constitutional parameters in which it has been assigned to operate. He should not hesitate to send bills back for reconsideration in case of constitutional impropriety.

Modern governments, including India’s, have assigned multiple diplomatic roles to the office of the President. Kovind possesses the affable outward personality necessary for a head of any state in the modern globalised world. Given the tumultuous and unpredictable relations India shares with some of its neighbours like Pakistan and China, Kovind will have to negotiate treaties and agreements with due care.

The outgoing president Pranab Mukherjee has reportedly not left any mercy petition for Kovind to clear. However, this hygiene should be maintained in the matter of presidential pardons and reprieves. Kovind should ensure that he too doesn’t leave any pending petitions for his successor.

Lastly, Ram Nath Kovind as President will have two types of legacies to choose from - he can either follow the likes of Dr Rajendra Prasad, Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, A P J Abdul Kalam or his own predecessor Pranab Mukherjee, or he can go down the uncelebrated road taken by Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed and Pratibha Patil.