The Telegraph
Tuesday , June 20 , 2017

The spokesperson who hardly spoke

Ramnath Kovind (left) meets Amit Shah in New Delhi on Monday. (PTI)

New Delhi, June 19: Most BJP leaders today responded with a sheepish smile when asked about the selection of Ramnath Kovind as the NDA's presidential candidate but none dared say anything that could be construed as a protest.

The leaders hardly had anything significant to share about Kovind, the Bihar governor, other than the fact that he is a Dalit.

The leaders felt that although Kovind was not a "much known leader", his candidature suited the election-driven politics pursued by Narendra Modi and Amit Shah.

Kovind, 71, hails from Kanpur Dehat district in the electorally crucial Uttar Pradesh and belongs to the Kori sub-caste of Dalits. The Koris are weavers in the state.

Numerically, the Koris do not constitute a substantial portion of the Dalit population in Uttar Pradesh but BJP leaders said they had considerable presence in Rajasthan, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh.

Kovind is a non-Jatav Dalit, the section the BJP is trying to win over. The Jatavs, the numerically dominant Dalit caste in Uttar Pradesh, are believed to be strong supporters of Mayawati's BSP.

Kovind joined the BJP in 1991 and was the president of the BJP's Dalit wing from 1998 to 2002.

Old-timers recalled that though he attended RSS sakhas (camps), he was never actively associated with the BJP's parent organisation. Kovind was elected to the Rajya Sabha for two consecutive terms - 1994 to 2000 and 2000 to 2006.

Kovind graduated in law from a Kanpur college and went to Delhi to prepare for the Indian Administrative Services entrance exam. He cleared the test in his third attempt. He, however, didn't join the IAS as he was selected for the allied services. He then started practicing law. He practiced as a lawyer in the Supreme Court.

He was made Bihar governor in August 2015 purportedly for the same reason for which he was selected today - his Dalit background.

The BJP had hoped that Kovind's appointment would fetch Dalit votes in Bihar in the Assembly elections in November 2015. The BJP, however, lost badly.

Party insiders said that in the 2012 Lok Sabha elections, Rajnath Singh had used Kovind to canvass support in Dalit areas. "The BJP didn't have any credible Dalit face and so Kovind was used to whatever benefit he could achieve," a BJP leader said.

In Parliament and outside, Kovind appears to have had a few pet peeves, including one Prime Minister Modi is widely believed to share: a distrust for sections of the media. Over his two terms in the Rajya Sabha, Kovind asked multiple questions on the "quality of the media" and how it could be "improved".

As the head of the BJP's Dalit wing, Kovind had hit out at the news magazine Tehelka after its sting operation that purportedly showed then party leader Bangaru Laxman receiving bribes. Kovind had insisted that the sting was aimed at defaming the then BJP government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and had been the defence witness in the case.

In all, Kovind asked 283 questions over his 12 years in the upper House but did not try and introduce any legislation as a private member. He wasn't always averse to asking tough questions of his own government.

After the US imposed economic sanctions on India in 1998 following the nuclear tests, Kovind asked then finance minister Yashwant Sinha for a road-map of the government's plans to continue to attract foreign investors worried about a backlash from America.

Kovind was also one of the spokespersons of the BJP and general secretary of the party in Uttar Pradesh.

Old-timers recalled that as spokesperson, he hardly spoke fearing his comments might generate a controversy.

"He always maintained a low profile and we never took him seriously. But see what fate can do," a BJP leader who has worked with Kovind said.

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