Hot News

Kovind Who?

Kovind Who?

Till a few days ago most of India would have said this. Who is Ramnath Kovind, the BJP nominee for the President of India? Now we have the answer to Who he is, but not the Why, or What to expect of him. We now know that he has been the Governor of Bihar since 2015, that he is a dalit, emphasised by the media, that he is a Supreme Court lawyer, and that he belongs to Kanpur, my hometown.

 I am born and bred here, where my family has been rooted for 160 years, and I am fully involved in public life. Yet, I had never heard of Kovind before he became the Governor of Bihar. Even after that there were only fleeting references to him, on his sporadic visits to the city.

To set the record straight, he was indeed born in the erstwhile undivided district of Kanpur. About 40 years ago a separate district was carved out called Kanpur Rural, and later Akbarpur, where Kovind was born. So technically he cannot be called a resident of Kanpur today. Whether he ever was, is in itself a moot question.

I wondered if I was the only ignoramus here who had not heard of Kovind. So I contacted my eminent colleagues in the Kanpur Nagrik Manch (KNM) and similar organisations, to ascertain their views. The panellists were a. Padmashree Dr Giriraj Kishore, renowned litterateur and Gandhian, b. Suresh Gupta, District President of the Rashtriya Lok Dal, c. Madanlal Bhatia, 3-time former corporator and now State committee member of AAP, d. Kuldeep Saxena, National Working Committee member of Yogendra Yadav’s Swaraj Abhiyan, e. Neelam Chaturvedi, General Secretary, U.P. Mahila Manch f. Jagdambabhai, Vice President, Gandhi Peace Foundation g. Athar Naim, district Vice President of the Congress h. Dr Farooq Ahmed Khan, Head of the Urdu Dept, Halim Muslim PG College i. Manoj Sengar, branch head of the Vishwa Gayatri Parivar and j. John Elias, former President of the United Christians Committee Kanpur. The views of such a distinguished panel need to be heard.

I posed seven questions to them and got some very enlightening answers. I will now present the questions and the answers and leave the readers to draw their own conclusions, which could be at variance to the media hype.

Q1. What is the possibility of Kovind becoming the next President of India?

The respondents were unanimous in their views that Kovind would get elected with a comfortable majority, more so with Nitish Kumar and Mulayam Singh Yadav (MSY) throwing their weight behind him.

Q2. Do the people of Kanpur know Kovind?   

There was near unanimity that he was hardly known before he was appointed Governor. Saxena said that even the rank and file of the BJP did not know him. The citizens were unaware of his achievements, if any. Jagdambabhai said that he was only known in limited RSS circles. Sengar, who has known Kovind for well nigh 20 years said that he had strong links with the common man, but because of his simplicity he did not attract much media attention. This was a bolt from the blue for Elias. Gupta opined that he had no public connect and later as a member of the Rajya Sabha (RS) too he had limited social interaction. Naim agreed. Neelam said that had he as a lawyer taken up public interest litigation or espoused social causes he would have been known, but that was not the case. According to Bhatia, Kanpur may have been his birthplace, but it was certainly not his workplace, so how would people know him?

Q3. Will the people of Kanpur benefit from his presidency?

Giriraj, Bhatia and Naim echoed most peoples’ views that as an RS member he did nothing, so what could one expect now? If he had no connection with Kanpur, then there could be no expectation either. Besides, the President, being a constitutional head, would have his limitations. Sengar said that it would be inappropriate for the city of 5 million to have high expectations from him. Elias observed that when leaders get elevated to high office they tend to forget their roots. But Gupta felt that big trees provide shade, so some benefits could accrue.

Q4. How popular is he, considering that he had earlier lost both the Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha elections?

Giriraj believed that it was precisely because of his electoral losses that he was accommodated in the RS. His appeal was limited to the RSS cadres only said Jagdambabhai. But Sengar felt that winning or losing an election was no index of a person’s popularity, while Elias observed that he could take a leaf out of MSY’s book that “If you didn’t vote for me then why should I do anything for you?” Gupta felt that the electoral losses were a clear indicator of the locus standii of the person and his party; while Naim said that this showed the dichotomy between public perception and Modi’s choice. Bhatia, himself a grassroots worker, said that the electorate resented candidates parachuted from outside.

Q5. The media has highlighted the candidate being a dalit. Is this the sole criterion for choosing a President?

This was just a political ploy according to Giriraj, to counter the dalit uprising in western U.P. Saxena saw this as part of the BJP’s agenda to appropriate Dr Ambedkar, and to raise a modern day dalit icon. Interestingly, Giriraj, who received his Padmashree from then President K.R. Narayanan said that it was only three years into his presidentship that he came to know that the President was a dalit! So why the dalit tomtomming now? Jagdambabhai and Elias felt that this was a political choice keeping in mind the 2019 elections. Sengar differed saying that it was not fair to emphasise the dalit angle only, as the candidate had several noble qualities and accomplishments to his name. For Gupta though, the choice was purely on caste considerations, not on merit. Naim posed a counter question, as to what Kovind had done for dalit welfare? Khan echoed this view and expressed his anguish at finding a huge hoarding outside the candidate’s city residence proclaiming that he was the Governor of Bihar. Bhatia termed the media projection of the dalit angle as an erosion of the high office of the President.

Q6. Was this another surgical strike like the one against Pakistan or demonetisation? Why didn’t Modi opt for a popular consensus candidate like Sushma Swaraj?  

Giriraj said that Modi wanted a person who would blindly tow his line. Saxena apprehended that the President, far from being a protector of the Constitution, would now be a promoter of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Jagdambabhai was of the view that though the public had been kept in the dark this was a well planned move. But this would backfire like the surgical strikes said Elias. Gupta said that Swaraj was rejected because she had a political stature of her own, which would not fit into Modi’s game plan. Naim saw this as a cunning move to counter the strife within the BJP, while Neelam felt that the BJP had now been reduced to a one man show, and Khan found this to be a political stunt. Bhatia reiterated that the unsavoury unfolding of events had diminished the status and office of the President.

Q7. The candidate is a Supreme Court lawyer. Will he use his legal acumen to perhaps amend the Constitution or blindly give his approval to legislation that furthers the BJP agenda?

This is one aspect that the media has not focussed on. Saxena was sure that this was part of the BJP’s agenda, though Jagdambabhai felt that the President was bound by certain norms and the advice of others. He recalled how President Zail Singh had strongly differed from Rajiv Gandhi; while the incumbent President Pranab Mukherjee acquiesced to political pressure in dismissing the duly elected Govts in Uttarakhand and Arunachal. In contrast K.R. Narayanan was a President who did not succumb to pressure. Sengar averred that if the President was an instrument of change for the benefit of the country then such a move should be welcomed. For Elias, the President was but a rubber stamp to whom cut and dried things would be sent for signature. Gupta doubted if Kovind had much knowledge of the Constitution. Naim was pretty certain that far reaching changes would be made against the core values of the Constitution prepared by Ambedkar. Social justice, harmony and equanimity would be put to the test. Khan concurred. Bhatia appreciated that Kovind was well educated, but constitutional changes are good only in changed circumstances, but not for promoting any hidden political agenda.

Kovind is not the first presidential candidate from Kanpur. Earlier, Padmavibhshan Capt Dr Lakshmi Sehgal (nee Swaminathan) a close confidante of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, was the Left parties’ candidate against APJ Abdul Kalam. I once visited her at her clinic during the presidential campaign. Sitting on an ordinary wooden chair, she was attending to poor women patients. She was well into her eighties then. With a twinkle in her eye she said to me. “I had a dream that I had become the President of India. The first thing that I did was to hand over the Rashtrapati Bhawan to Mother Teresa to run a hospice for the poor!”

Of such were the leaders of yesteryear. Will we see the likes of them again? Neelam summed it up, that we want a President whom we can all look up to, feel pride in, a capable person who would achieve something. Bhatia denounced the media and BJP hype about the candidate. It was not reflected in the public mood. By now the people of Kanpur should have lit pure ghee diyas and celebrated Diwali, for a fellow citizen would be the first citizen of the country. That was sadly missing. He recalled how the entire city had rejoiced a few years ago when its local 3-time M.P. Sriprakash Jaiswal was elevated to the rank of a Cabinet Minister.

What more surprises does the Modi-Shah duo have in their secret cabinet? They don’t even have a kitchen cabinet like Indira Gandhi. The only thing in their cabinet is to win election after election, the Presidential one included. I therefore fear for the future of my beloved country. We now know Who Kovind is, and Why he is the candidate. We are yet to discover What he will do once he ascends Raisina Hill!

STOP PRESS: This interview was conducted before the declaration of Meira Kumar as the combined opposition candidate. It is the most sensible step taken by the Congress in a long time. It has already neutralised the dalit angle and may even impact the Bihar aspect too.

* The writer is the Founder Convenor of the Kanpur Nagrik Manch

* File photo shows Dr Giriraj Kishore addressing its members on the sacredness of the Constitution at Gandhiji’s statue.

(Published on 26th June 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 26)