Governor Ram Nath Kovind outside Raj Bhavan before leaving for New Delhi on Monday. Picture by Nagendra Kumar Singh
Patna, June 19: When Ram Nath Kovind, a low-profile Dalit face of the BJP, was named Bihar governor in August 2015, the state's politicians had reacted with an incredulous "Kovind who?"
When Amit Shah named Kovind, 71, as the BJP's pick for President this afternoon, much of India had the same poser.
Kovind's appointment as governor, months before the 2015 Bihar Assembly elections, had been criticised by chief minister Nitish Kumar, who had accused the Narendra Modi government of not consulting him while taking the decision.
Two years hence, Nitish today said he was personally happy that the Bihar governor was in contention for President. "His tenure in Bihar has been ideal. He has worked impartially and in accordance with the Constitution. He has maintained the dignity of his post," said the chief minister, who, when helming the NDA government, had had run-ins with then Governor Devanand Konwar on several issues, especially on those related to the state's universities.
Nitish, who went to Raj Bhavan in the evening to congratulate Kovind, was non-committal when asked if the JDU would support the BJP's candidate. "I have spoken to Sonia Gandhi and Lalu Prasad and told them what I feel. But this is not the opportune time to make any announcement," he said after emerging from Raj Bhavan.
"On a personal level, it is a moment of happiness for me that Bihar's governor has become a candidate for the President of India," he added.
JDU insiders hinted that the party may support Kovind if the Opposition forces an election. Nitish, they asserted, shared a cordial relationship with the governor. "In fact Nitish could not have expected a better governor even if there had been a non-BJP government at the Centre," said a JDU leader on the condition of anonymity.
Nitish, incidentally, has a record of supporting rival candidates. In the last presidential election when he was in the NDA, Nitish supported Pranab Mukherjee against the alliance candidate P.A. Sangma.
The selection of Kovind by the BJP is multi-purpose. Not only has it put the Opposition in disarray because very few parties are reluctant to vote against a Dalit candidate, the BJP also hopes to send a message to Dalits who have been angry over the Saharanpur violence and have been hit by the beef ban - a section of Dalits depend financially on skinning dead cows. BSP chief Mayawati said she would back Kovind if the Opposition doesn't put up a Dalit candidate.
Kovind, who hails from Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh, belongs to the Kori sub-caste of Dalits who were traditionally weavers and are numerically small compared to other Dalit sections.
Political sources said if elected President, Kovind would be expected to bring to Rashtrapati Bhavan the same low-key style he followed in the Patna Raj Bhavan. The only time he sparked a controversy - and came in for criticism from the RJD - was during the swearing-in of the Grand Alliance ministers when he made Lalu Prasad's son Tej Pratap Yadav take the oath twice because the youngster pronounced the word " apekshit (expected)" as "upekshit (neglected)". A few politicians criticised Kovind for being too harsh on the first timer in the Assembly, while others hailed the governor, saying he was right in correcting Tej Pratap.
Kovind has never given the Bihar government an opportunity to complain - he has cleared all bills sent to him, even the controversial anti-liquor legislation which had stringent punishment clauses. As chancellor of universities, he has always consulted the chief minister and education minister over selection of VCs and pro-VCs. Education minister Ashok Choudhary makes it a point to touch Kovind's feet whenever they meet at Raj Bhavan.
"As governor, he never gave undue advantage to the BJP and we had to seek a formal appointment to give petitions like any other party," said BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi.
Kovind has also been popular among the intelligentsia of Patna. "Kovind is a person of probity, besides being well-read and modest. He has always said that he stood for the upliftment of Dalits and the deprived sections," said Shaibal Gupta, member-secretary of Asian Development Research Institute (Adri).
"He has been a prototype governor who will be a prototype President," said a JDU leader who did not wish to be named.
Kovind is a lawyer by training and practised in Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court. He has been member of the Rajya Sabha for 12 years from 1994 and headed the Scheduled Caste cell of the BJP for four years. Kovind has also been a member of the governing board of IIM Calcutta.
"Throughout his tenure as governor of Bihar I have never seen him angry. But he is also firm. He sticks to rules and has a great grip over legal matters. He even attended weddings and ceremonies of Grade III and IV staff of Raj Bhavan if he was invited. There was nobody in Raj Bhavan unhappy with him. He is a voracious reader who only sees TV for news," said a Raj Bhavan official who didn't wish to be named.
Kovind has a son Prashant Kumar and daughter Swati. His wife Savita stays with him in Raj Bhavan.
Known for his Spartan life style, Kovind is a vegetarian who prefers South Indian food for breakfast and his usual meal consists of chapatis with green vegetables. If he gets elected, Kovind will be the second governor of Bihar to reach Rashtrapati Bhavan after Zakir Husain.