With the swearing-in on Tuesday of Ram Nath Kovind, who becomes our 14th President and the first from the ranks of the Sangh Parivar, attention is likely to focus on his actions in time to come rather than his formal speech after taking oath in which he ticked the right boxes on many counts. A part of the reason is that while Mr Kovind was until recently the Governor of Bihar and is a two-time Rajya Sabha MP, not many have much recollection of his thoughts and actions, except as a former BJP spokesman, especially on the issue of rights of dalits and agitations for dalit causes. Activists of that genre haven’t really heard of him, although he is himself a dalit.
President Kovind promised to protect the Constitution and uphold the pluralistic character of the country. He could hardly have done otherwise since he was taking oath on that Constitution. However, he is likely to be under scrutiny for what he might do when there is a conflict between what the Constitution dictates and what RSS thought dictates. None of his predecessors faced that dilemma. Many may also be looking to see if President Kovind can be an independent referee on the government’s actions and whether, as head of state, he will be able to advise and caution Prime Minister Narendra Modi against a course of action if circumstances so dictate. Some concern may arise on this score as the President appeared to go out of his way in his first speech to single out the Prime Minister’s pet scheme of solar missions, about which he speaks frequently, including when travelling overseas.
It was surprising to see such a devoted reference to a Modi proposal. This needlessly drew attention to the likely quality of the relationship between the incoming President and the Prime Minister. While it was expected that the new President could invoke the name of Deendayal Upadhyay, a much-extolled member of the RSS pantheon credited with expounding the idea of “integral humanism” (although no one can be quite sure what this means), it was surprising to see Mr Kovind mention the RSS icon in the same breath as Mahatma Gandhi. He appeared to equate the two and almost give the impression that for the BJP, Upadhyay is the new Gandhi. The same strain of thinking was underlined when Mr Kovind conspicuously left out a reference to Jawaharlal Nehru — far and away the most important figure who helped define and shape Indian democracy in the specific circumstances of Independence tinged with Partition in a country of baffling diversity. Naming the first Prime Minister was far from necessary, but he was omitted when his contemporaries found mention.