India elected a new president from the bottom of the Hindu caste system Thursday (20), only the second time since independence a head of state has been chosen from the marginalised group.
Ram Nath Kovind won the largely ceremonial position with more than 65 percent of the vote by members of India’s parliament and state assemblies, the election commission said.
The 71-year-old former lawyer and state governor from the downtrodden Dalit community was nominated by prime minister Narendra Modi’s ruling party for the post.
Analysts said the election of Kovind would help Modi tighten his grip on power and accrue political capital by sending an important message to the Dalits, a long-disdained electoral group once known as “untouchables”.
The opposition Congress Party also put forward a Dalit candidate, a former parliamentary speaker Meira Kumar.
But Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party assembled enough electoral college votes to push through its candidate and the outcome was expected.
“Congratulations to Shri Ram Nath Kovind Ji on being elected the President of India! Best wishes for a fruitful and inspiring tenure,” Modi wrote on Twitter.
Kovind, in a sobering address after being declared president-elect, said it was an “emotional moment”.
“It has been raining in Delhi since morning, and reminds me of my childhood in our ancestral village home, where we siblings used to huddle around the walls to avoid water from the leaking roof when it rained,” he said.
“Even today the country will have so many Ram Nath Kovinds working as daily wagers, farmers… sweating for their next meal. I want to tell them that I am going to the ‘President House’ as their representative.”
Celebrations erupted in Kovind’s home state of Uttar Pradesh with drumming and cheering in cities and villages.
Dalits, who number around 200 million in the nation of 1.3 billion, are among India’s poorest communities and relegated to the margins of society.
Despite legal protection, discrimination is rife and Dalits are routinely denied access to education and other advancement opportunities.
Kovind said his election to the highest office of the land underscored the strength of India’s democracy.
“I never thought or aimed for this office…I will work to protect the Indian constitution,” he added.
Kovind will be sworn in as India’s 14th president on Tuesday (25), as Pranab Mukherjee’s five-year term draws to a close.
India’s prime minister wields executive power, but the president can send back some parliamentary bills for reconsideration and also plays a guiding role in the process of forming governments.