The Bharatiya Janata Party’s decision to choose Ram Nath Kovind as its candidate for president raises three questions and I’m not sure if the answers will please Messrs. Narendra Modi and Amit Shah: Who is Mr Kovind? Why was he chosen? And is he the most fitting member of the Sangh Parivar for this high office?
For all his unblemished career as an advocate, a two-term Rajya Sabha MP and, most recently, Governor of Bihar, Kovind is for most of us an unknown entity. He may well be a good and principled man but is that sufficient to be President of India? Should not the person chosen have distinctions that are widely recognised so that he can be said to adorn the office rather than simply occupy it? The President has no political powers but he does have enormous influence and he is the symbol of our nation. He, therefore, needs to be someone we look up to and not a person we have questions about. However, despite these doubts, there is clearly one good reason why Kovind was chosen. He’s a Dalit and, therefore, represents the party the BJP wishes to become. As its strives to shed its elite Brahmin image, Kovind is the quotidian man-of-the-masses face it hopes will appeal to the voters it seeks to attract.
This is a political decision every party has a right to take even if it’s somewhat of a gamble. One can differ with the BJP’s calculations but that is hardly convincing grounds for disagreeing with the choice. However, it’s the answer to the third question that could provide grounds for believing Kovind is the wrong pick. This is because there is a more fitting member of the Sangh Parivar who should have been its choice — Lal Krishna Advani. I have several reasons for making this claim. Let me, briefly, mention the really important ones. To begin with, Advani is highly distinguished and this is widely acknowledged. He’s therefore one of the best-known faces of the BJP. Many believe he’s the architect who laid the foundation for the party’s political success. And in his personal life he’s lived by admirable moral standards. He would certainly have adorned the office.
Second, choosing Advani would have shown that Modi has put behind him and even forgotten the differences he has with him including, in particular, Advani’s opposition to his candidature for prime ministership in 2013. That would have been an act of magnanimity that could have proven Modi’s large-heartedness. Actually, it might even have established he was the greater man of the two. Third, although some opposition parties are supporting Kovind many more might have supported Advani. Some would have voted for him because of his differences with Modi. Others because of their earlier association with him and undoubted respect. Mamata Banerjee and Nitish Kumar almost certainly fall into the second category, whilst it’s conceivable that Sonia Gandhi might have been persuaded to fit herself into the first. There’s a fourth reason too. I’m sure choosing Advani would have had greater resonance with the BJP’s membership as well as its wider support base whilst choosing . Kovind might easily make some, if not several, question why it wasn’t them.
Let me however end with a personal reason for preferring Advani. For me it proves he has the moral quality necessary to be President of India. In 1990, when he was Leader of the Opposition and I was an unknown journalist, I interviewed him for Eyewitness, a video magazine I edited at the time. A short time later, when I next met him, I asked what he thought of the interview. He tersely replied he had been told it was a travesty. Then he abruptly turned his back and walked away.
Stunned by this behaviour I sent him a VHS of the interview and asked him to see it for himself. I was confident he had been misled. Weeks or months went by without any response. In fact, I gave up expecting one. Then, suddenly, late one summer evening the phone rang. It was Advani. “Karan, I’ve just seen the interview and there was absolutely nothing wrong with it. I was clearly misinformed. However, I’m too old to make that excuse and I’m afraid I behaved badly when we last met. I’m ringing to apologise.” A man who has the wisdom and courage to say sorry is someone I would trust to safeguard our democracy and our values as President.