The Congress appeared indignant that President Ram Nath Kovind didn’t take Jawahar lal Nehru’s name even once during his speech at the oath-taking ceremony. It needn’t have. It must get used to the new normal. India’s grand old party, an embodiment of the ruling elites, had lost the political battle long ago. Tuesday marked the formal epitaph of elites’ first claim to power. They have decisively lost the social battle.It has taken seven decades for India to finally reach a point where both occupants of its highest offices are bona fide members of the subaltern underclass. We may not realize it yet but this represents a tectonic shift in Indian politics. The power equation will never be the same again. The economic and political elites have been dis-empowered and power is percolating down to the roots, giving rise to forces and movements that we are too close to fully assess or understand.
The churn in India’s bowels that threw up a Narendra Modi and catapulted him to the prime minister’s chair is now getting a fuller shape. Kovind’s nomination, victory and the oath-taking speech is a seamless representation of the result of this rumble and it became inevitable as the political establishment was caught in the trappings of power. Beset by corruption, lacking in vision, low on energy and inspiration, Congress – the symbol of the failing, decaying elite – in the end was reduced to managing perceptions.
It wasn’t going to work. Modi’s rise was hastened by this moral and political vacuum and his tenure so far has been marked by a strong accent on redistribution of power. He sought to rewrite the dynamics in a way that all avenues to power are unclogged and even a Dalit who grew up in a mud house can occupy the hallowed halls of Rashtrapati Bhavan. Kovind’s election is a logical progression of this new idea of India. It is the fullest example of participatory democracy.
The new president was mindful of his place in the larger context of this social struggle and made pointed references to scores and scores of ordinary Indians who are not only nation-builders in their own right but can now legitimately aspire to be formally recognized as one. He paid tribute to the unknown farmer, soldier, scientist, doctor, nurse, public servant, startup owner, teacher, housewife with a disarming simplicity that is alien to conceited practitioners of the power game.
There is a tendency to interpret Kovind’s presidency solely through the lens of identity politics. A case can be made that the president’s chair could have been reserved for a non-political personality who has excelled in her field. It could have been a statement of intent. However, this view completely disregards the experience and sagacity that Kovind brings to the table.
To suggest that the 71-year-old was merely a political appointee is to negate his achievements and imply that his professional success owes merely to his Koli background. Such an argument, in the garb of progressiveness, is thinly disguised classicism.
It will be interesting to see Kovind’s approach. By mentioning the names of Deen Dayal Upadhyay, Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Patel and Babasaheb Ambedkar, Kovind has thrown the gauntlet. He has indicated that he won’t have time for virtue-signaling and won’t disown his BJP/RSS background. At the same time, while pitching for an inclusive India, stressing on justice, liberty, equality and fraternity and diversity (which he described as the key) the president has implied that he will not shy away from upholding the Constitution.
The best Indian presidents so far (S Radhakrishnan, Abdul Kalam) have been apolitical figures. It doesn’t follow that someone with political background will not to be able to justify the responsibilities of his chair. Kovind may have remained outside the realm of limelight, but his struggle and success is proof enough of his grit. It is time to bury the concept that someone as ‘ordinary’ as a farmer’s son will be uneasy with power. The rules of the games have changed.