Five years ago, the day Ram Nath Kovind swept the Presidential election with over 66% votes, the Rajya Sabha witnessed a heated debate on the “increase” in the cases of lynchings and assaults on Muslims and Dalits in the country. The Opposition laid the blame for the incidents of “grotesque violence” at the door of the BJP and its ideological parent, the RSS.
Kovind, a former president of the BJP’s Scheduled Caste wing and at the time the Governor of Bihar, thus, offered the Sangh an opportunity to reset its terms of engagements with the Dalit community. Much like Droupadi Murmu now as the country’s first tribal President, the Narendra Modi government was hailed for showing political imagination by picking Kovind.
In his first speech after taking oath, Kovind said, “The key to India’s success is its diversity. Our diversity is the core that makes us so unique. In this land we find a mix of states and regions, religions, languages, cultures, lifestyles and much more. We are so different and yet so similar and united.”
But, over the course of his presidency, Kovind faced charges of reducing the above to mere platitude, never challenging the government, even as pleas were made to him to exert the moral presence of his office on issues.
The Bills or decisions on which the Opposition felt the outgoing President could have intervened included the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir and the introduction of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). Even as legislation were rushed through Parliament without discussion, the Opposition failed to get any reprieve from Rashtrapati Bhavan.
On the other hand, Kovind was accused of going the extra mile to facilitate decisions of the government. In November 2019, for example, the decision to lift President’s Rule in Maharashtra, paving the way for a short-lived stint by the BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis as Chief Minister. The Centre invoked a special rule to allow the Prime Minister to recommend revocation of Article 356 without any prior consultation with the Cabinet. The decision to lift President’s Rule was notified at 5.47 am on November 23, 2019.
By November 26, 2019, the Fadnavis government had fallen, and a coalition of the Shiv Sena, NCP and Congress had taken over.
In 2018, acting on the Centre’s advice, Kovind overturned his own decision regarding the appointment of Visva Bharati University vice-chancellor. He was accused of unquestioningly endorsing the change, despite being the Visitor of the prestigious university.
Kovind’s address to the joint session of Parliament ahead of the 2019 general elections also drew the flak of the Opposition, when he said that prior to 2014, India was passing through “a phase of uncertainty”, and that the BJP government wanted to build a “New India with no place for imperfect, corrupt and inertia-ridden systems”.
Kovind, who paid State visits to 33 countries during his tenure, also praised the purchase of Rafale jets (which was criticised by the Opposition), hailed the cross-border surgical strikes, and described demonetisation as the “defining moment” in the war on corruption, in his speech. The Congress said it was “unfortunate” that the Modi government used the President’s address as a “tool to try and give credence to its false promises”.
Kovind often talked about his “remarkable journey” during his tenure – a Dalit boy from a hut in Kanpur Dehat who had grown up to reside at Raisina Hill. He attributed it to his fortitude and resilience, helping him escape poverty through education, first becoming a lawyer, then a politician. The father of two served two terms in the Rajya Sabha before becoming a Governor, and then President.
But, more than anything else, Kovind’s silence was deeply felt over instances of attacks on the socially marginalised, particularly Muslims and Dalits.
The closest Kovind came to addressing this was in 2018, speaking at an event to mark the 127th birth anniversary of B R Ambedkar, where he spoke up only to criticise protests over such issues. “In his final speech in the Constituent Assembly, Dr Ambedkar said, now that we have constitutional methods of expressing Opposition, we should avoid disruptive mechanisms,” Kovind said, in an apparent reference to the violent protests against perceived dilutions in the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
The same year, he condemned the rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in J&K’s Kathua, which became a communal issue, saying there was a need to introspect “the kind of society we are developing into”.
In the midst of violent protests by a few right-wing groups against the film Padmaavat, Kovind in his Republic Day in 2018 said: “A civic-minded nation is built by civic-minded neighbourhoods, whether in our cities or our villages. Where we respect the next-door person’s space, privacy and rights. Where we do not inconvenience our neighbours – while celebrating a festival or while resorting to a protest or on any other occasion.”
Penning his thoughts during his stay at a retreat in Mashobra, Shimla, in May 2018, Kovind urged Indians to learn from nature to live with “sense of compassion, fraternity, civility and mutual dignity”, underscoring that “nature does not compartmentalise”.
Those seeking the same in his personal life went away with a few flashes of quiet dignity. Like in 2020, when ahead of Eid-ul-Adha, Kovind gifted Riyaz, a 16-year-old boy from a financially weak family, a racing bicycle to help him realise his ambition of becoming a champion cyclist. First Lady Savita Kovind stitched masks during the first wave of the Covid for inmates of Delhi’s shelter homes.
However, to most, Kovind, 76, fell far short of expectations, as laid down, for example, by the first Dalit President of the country. Even if the President’s hands are largely tied – with the Constitution requiring him or her to act in accordance with the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers – President K R Narayanan had pushed the envelope against the government of the day, led by the BJP’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee, on the Ramjanmabhoomi dispute as well as the 2002 Gujarat riots.
— With inputs by Liz Mathew