Kovind's challenges: can he come out of BJP shadow?

Kovind's challenges: can he come out of BJP shadow?

Ram Nath Kovind’s first speech as India’s 14th President before Members of Parliament on July 25 soon after he was sworn in has drawn protests from the opposition because he ended by saying “we need to sculpt...an egalitarian society as envisioned by Mahatma Gandhi and (the late Jan Sangh leader) Deendayal Upadhyayaji.” Also, the new President left India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru out of his address, drawing protest from the Congress.

As Kovind moved into the Rashtrapati Bhavan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi could not help telling the BJP MPs that the “journey started by (Jana Sangh founder) Syama Prasad Mookerjee, during which many people sacrificed everything, has reached a significant milestone today as the new President takes oath.”

Underscoring those very sentiments, BJP’s Vice President candidate Venkaiah Naidu too tweeted on the same day reminding that the BJP “is like mother & we should never forget our mother.”

As the first leader from the BJP-RSS lineage to make it to the Rashtrapati Bhavan, Kovind could not have but paid his due homage to one of the leading lights of the Jan Sangh, the forerunner of the BJP. His predecessor, Pranab Mukherjee, too never missed an opportunity to pay homage to Congress stalwarts like Nehru and Indira Gandhi. On his inaugural day, Kovind could not have disappointed his mentors and was expected to acknowledge the influence of icons who had guided his political philosophy.

He was not expected to be coy about his political origin, particularly after the mandate of 2014 parliamentary elections that enabled his own election as President. Kovind secured an impressive victory, receiving more than the number of votes pledged to him. He got support from outside the NDA’s political base too.

Nonetheless, Kovind does face a challenge. He will be under constant scrutiny as he settles down in his office. The big question will be: can he emerge out of the shadow of the BJP? Can he be comfortable taking an independent position on issues that require him as the custodian of the constitutional law?

As soon as he was declared elected to the high office on July 20, Kovind’s first words were, “it is my duty to protect the Constitution and uphold its values as the President.” When he filed his nomination papers as BJP-NDA candidate for the presi-dential poll, Kovind made it a point to emphasise that, “In our country, the Constitution is supreme. We have to uphold the values enshrined in our Constitution.”

And, for those who thought that he should be a copybook President, sparing the government any headache in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, Kovind reminded all political leaders of his record as Bihar governor — through the times when the BJP and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar were not the best of friends.

“Ever since I took over as governor, I have no political affiliation. I have filed my nomination for the President of India. I thank all parties that are supporting me. I will always uphold the dignity of the office of President of India, a post on which several distinguishing people have served,” he said.

It is also a fact that Kovind is no choice of the RSS, the ideological mentor of the BJP. He is not the typical saffron leader who owes his strength to the Sangh hierarchy. The RSS did not decide on his candidature though his nomination could have obtained its endorsement.

At the same time, Kovind cannot prevent the BJP from attempting to cash on his elevation because of his Dalit background. A former chief of BJP’s Dalit Morcha, Kovind rose from the party ranks. He was twice made member of the Rajya Sabha before being appointed governor of Bihar after Modi came to power.

Kovind will remain a perfect example for the BJP’s model to expand and improve the party’s standing among Scheduled Castes. Modi’s choice of Kovind was clearly borne by the fact he comes from UP, which sends 80 MPs to Lok Sabha. Be that as it may, Kovind’s litmus test will come in the months ahead. As the President, he will have to weather situation where he cannot be a pushover.

Power to review

Kovind may be required to use his power of asking for reconsideration of the Union Cabinet’s advice like his predecessors have done before. Of course, this view pre-supposes that Kovind will often be required to give his assent for decisions of the Modi government that should be controversial always.

But as President, Kovind knows — as he has often told many leaders when he became the Bihar governor — that he will have to apply his mind when faced with situations that require his discrimination. He will be faced with two choices — eith­er going by the settled conventions or questionable precedents — in arriving at decisions.

Of course, his conduct will be compared with his immediate predecessor, Pranab Mukherjee, who had his own style of conveying his views and differences to the prime minister. Unlike Mukherjee, Kovind has not had the rich experience of the power play of Delhi. Mukherjee boasted of 39 years of experience as Union minister, which was part of a 43-year-old stint in Parliament.

Mukherjee held a pivotal role in the governments of Indira Gandhi, Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh, and, in fact, till he became the President. He understood every twists and turn of constitutional, parliamentary and administrative problems.

What favours Kovind, however, is that while he lacks a politician’s wisdom, he could make up with a clarity of approach that is untainted by political intrigues and shenanigans. Kovind would have picked up nuances of the governor’s discretionary power in his stint in Bihar. As President, he knows he has far more discretionary powers than a governor for striking a delicate balance between an unthinking rubber stamp or an overreaching President.

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