On Wednesday, when President Ramnath Kovind completes 100 days in office, he will inaugurate an international conference on club foot and meet the King and Queen of Bhutan, along with the crown prince. At his personal initiative, Rashtrapati Bhawan is organising a hamper of chocolates for two-year-old Prince Jigme Namgyel Wangchuck, sources said.
Between whirlwind day trips and meetings, it is personal touches such as these that have marked the first 100 days of Kovind, 73, as the 14th President of India.
From a speech in Bangalore lauding Tipu Sultan’s fight against the British, at a time the dominant narrative painted Tipu in a negative light, to describing Mahatma Gandhi as an English teacher and making way for lesser-known Matangini Hazra and Rani of Kittur in the Independence Day pantheon, Kovind has constantly made himself heard above the ambient political noise.
At a speech in Delhi’s Jesus and Mary College, he lauded the contribution of Christians to education. This was significant because, after his name had been announced as the NDA nominee for President, the spotlight had fallen on comments he had made in 2010 on Islam, Christianity and reservation.
On his maiden trip to his home state of UP last month, he described it as the “land of Kumbh Mela and Taj Mahal”. Earlier this month, around the time BJP leaders were criticising Kerala’s “culture of violence”, Kovind travelled to the state and talked about its culture of mutual understanding of faiths.
At the JMC golden jubilee celebrations on September 20, Kovind said: “Here I must note that the Christian community — whose history in India goes back 2,000 years and which has contributed so much to our shared culture — has carved a special role for itself in education. Missionary institutions such as this one have become symbols of scholarship, dedicated teaching and academic excellence.”
In Kerala, where the Left and the right are locked in a violent political battle, he chose to speak about the state’s culture of religious tolerance. “Kerala’s spiritual consciousness is well beyond faith and religious distinctions. The Christian community here is one of the oldest not only in India, but anywhere in the world. The first mosque to be built in India is in Kerala… Kerala also has a rich Jewish heritage. Jews settled here, I am given to understand, after the Romans drove them out of Jerusalem about 2,000 years ago,” he said at the Mata Amritanandamayi Math in Kollam on October 10.
And when BJP leaders were protesting the cracker ban in Delhi NCR, came the President’s Diwali wishes: “Let us resolve to celebrate Diwali in a clean and pollution-free manner as well as build a healthy, prosperous and sensitive nation and society.”
Kovind has maintained a punishing schedule. When he travelled to Gujarat for an event to declare rural areas open defecation-free, he had functions in Rajkot, Porbandar and Jamnagar, and also went to a rural area, Mongrol. This month, he travelled seven hours to Kerala for the one-hour function at Mata Anandmayee Math and returned to Delhi in time for the Air Force Day celebrations in the evening. His day trips have covered Leh, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Kerala and Jharkhand, one more to Bihar is coming up. His sole foreign trip so far — to Ethiopia, where he extended an impromptu invitation to Indians there to visit Rashtrapati Bhawan — packed four speeches and some half a dozen events in less than 24 hours.
Kovind has mentioned Jawaharlal Nehru in at least two speeches, steering clear of the rest of the dynasty. Incidentally, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi are among just a handful of politicians who have not yet paid a courtesy visit to Rashtrapati Bhawan.
On Teachers’ Day, while hosting award-winning teachers at Durbar Hall and speaking extempore, he counted in the line of great and inspiring teachers not just A P J Abdul Kalam and previous President Pranab Mukherjee — who taught political science before entering politics — but also narrated a factoid about Mahatma Gandhi who had for a while taught English to children in Balmiki Colony at Mandir Marg in Delhi. On September 2 in Gujarat, he praised former prime minister Morarji Desai, how it was while working with him as a young man that he had seen Gujarat “closely”, and how it was a “second home” for him.
Kovind’s tendency to go beyond the written speech (Tipu was scripted) has taken Rashtrapati Bhawan officials by surprise. At an event organised by Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi, he spoke about child sexual abuse — a topic few earlier Presidents have touched — and shared the dais with an abuse victim. “God has chosen you for this,” Satyarthi wrote to Kovind, expressing his “gratitude on behalf of all the children of India”.
“Two things he is passionate about are law and education. He recalls his humble beginnings and says it was his opportunity to pursue higher education that brought him so far. He keeps his doors open to people from all walks of life, maintaining a workday of 9.30 to 8, with a couple of hours’ afternoon break,” says a Rashtrapati Bhawan official.
Even when it comes to presentation of credentials by foreign diplomats — foreign officials cannot start working officially until the credentials have been accepted by the President — Kovind’s Rashtrapati Bhawan has been unusually busy. There have been three such ceremonies in the last three months; earlier there would be one such ceremony every two months where several diplomats would present their credentials.
A couple of days ago, he became the tenth most followed world leader on Twitter with 4.3 million. It made India the only country in the world to have two leaders among the top 10 followed politicians; prime minister Narendra Modi ranks number one with 43 million followers. The tweet on Kovind’s Addis Ababa speech from the @RashtrapatiBhvn handle: “The next time you are in Delhi, I invite you to visit Rashtrapati Bhavan. It belongs to Indians all over the world #PresidentKovind” got 3,500 RTs and 11,000 likes.