Ram Nath Kovind sworn in as president of India

Former lawyer is second ‘low caste’ Dalit to assume country’s highest public office

India’s new president, Ram Nath Kovind, inspecting a guard of honour during a ceremony at the presidential palace in New Delhi on Tuesday.  Photograph: Prakash Singh/Getty Images/AFP

India’s new president, Ram Nath Kovind, inspecting a guard of honour during a ceremony at the presidential palace in New Delhi on Tuesday. Photograph: Prakash Singh/Getty Images/AFP

 

India’s 14th president was sworn into office in an elaborate ceremony in New Delhi on Tuesday.

Ram Nath Kovind (72), who was administered the oath of office in parliament by chief justice J S Kehar, became the second “low caste” Dalit to assume the country’s highest public office, and the first to be closely linked to a powerful Hindu revivalist organisation.

“I bow to the 1.25 billion citizens of this great nation and promise to stay true to the trust they have bestowed upon me,” Mr Kovind said after becoming president.

“Each one of us is a custodian of India’s wellbeing and of the legacy that we pass on to coming generations,” he said.

A former lawyer, MP and governor of eastern Bhiar state, Mr Kovind secured 65.5 per cent of votes cast by MPs and state legislators in the presidential elections last week, defeating his opponent Meira Kumar, a former diplomat and parliament speaker.

He replaces Pranab Mukherjee, a former Congress Party minister who was elected president in 2012, for a five-year term.

Largely ceremonial

Although India’s presidency is largely ceremonial, the incumbent’s role can be vital in choosing a government in the event of an uncertain electoral outcome after elections.

Mr Kovind is a longtime associate of the Hindu Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) or National Volunteer Corps that has long been accused of stoking hatred against Muslims and Christians.

The RSS is the ideological “parent” of prime minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which controls enough seats in federal and state legislatures to push its favoured candidates into senior positions.

The grand ceremony that ushered into office India’s new first citizen began in the morning with a knock on Mr Kovind’s temporary residence by the president’s military secretary, to escort him and his wife to the nearby majestic red sandstone presidential palace.

Mr Kovind and Mr Mukherjee then moved to the palace forecourt, where the outgoing president took his last salute from the president’s bodyguard horse cavalry, resplendent in white ceremonial uniforms and blue turbans, inlaid with gold embroidery.

The two leaders then drove at a snail’s pace to parliament in a black limousine for Mr Kovind’s swearing-in, escorted by the bodyguards down a wide avenue lined with hundreds of army soldiers.

Mr Kovind’s rise to the country’s top post follows a series of senior appointments through which Mr Modi has tightened the control of the Hindu right in almost all the country’s top jobs.

This grip will again be on display during the vice-presidential election on August 5th, the outcome of which also is a certainty. Venkiah Naidu, an RSS member and federal minister, is poised to secure this post, as the BJP has a parliamentary majority.

India’s vice-president is also chairman of parliament’s Rajya Sabha, or Upper House.