Controversy over India’s presidential nominee

Christians are concerned over Hindu leader's hard-line ideology
Controversy over India’s presidential nominee

BJP's presidential nominee Ram Nath Kovind (left) with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi, June 19. Christians are concerned by the Hindu leader's hard-line ideology. (Photo by IANS) 

Christian leaders have criticized the ruling pro-Hindu party for nominating as its presidential candidate a hard-line Hindu leader who reportedly once described Christianity and Islam as "alien" religions in India.

The  Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) that rules the federal government and various Indian states, named Ram Nath Kovind, who is considered a leader of socially oppressed Dalit groups, as its candidate for President of India, June 19.

The incumbent President Pranab Mukherjee's term ends on July 24. The post of Indian president is largely ceremonial. The president is elected by an electoral college comprising state and federal lawmakers.  Nominations end June 28 with voting for the president scheduled for July 17.

Father Z. Devasagaya Raj, secretary the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India's office of Dalits and backward classes, told that the idea of appointing a Dalit person for the coveted post is largely positive but not if "the person holds a [pro-Hindu] right-wing ideology."

"The selection of president is based on the political parties' whims and fancies" but it would be better if we have a president, who is "secular, neutral and can speak for everyone," Father Raj said. 

In 2010, Kovind, who was a BJP leader before being appointed governor of the east Indian state of Bihar, said "Islam and Christianity are alien to India."

He further suggested people from these religions should not be given social benefits or quotas for government jobs and educational institutions, even if they come from a poor socio-economic background.

Samuel Jaykumar of the National Council of Churches in India said that the BJP's presidential nominee reflects the Hindu hegemony the party has been pushing for so long.

"We hope and expect that the president upholds the constitutional and secular values" as he represents the whole of India, irrespective of any political party or religion, Jayakumar said.

The BJP and its allies together have only 48 percent of the required number of votes in the electoral college. However, with several regional political parties declaring additional support for Kovind, the 71-year-old Dalit candidate is poised to be elected the next Indian president. The election result will be announced July 20, three days after voting.

Senior Communist leader Sitaram Yechury told that his party will oppose the candidate "politically and ideologically" by working with left-wing parties to place a rival candidate.

Some parties, including the main opposition Congress party, have put forward Meira Kumar, a former speaker and daughter of the late Babu Jagjivan Ram, a Dalit leader and deputy Indian prime minister. 

Concerned about Kovind's ideological leaning, Congress spokesman Manish Tewari told that his part wants to "make it clear that election to the office of the president is a serious matter. A person who becomes president of India swears to uphold the constitution."

Despite general support for Kovind from Dalit groups, Jaykumar, who has fought for the cause of Dalit Christians, expressed his apprehension. Jaykumar said he was concerned about a Kovind presidency and the potential adverse effects on the rights of Dalit Christians and Muslims.

Kovind has previously advocated scrapping the recommendations of an official commission that studied the socio-economic situation of Christians and Muslims of Dalit origin in 2007. He also labelled the recommendation to reserve 15 percent of government jobs and educational seats as "unconstitutional."

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Dalits, often the target of oppression and persecution, belong to the former untouchable castes within the Hindu caste system. At least half of India's 25 million Christians are considered from the Dalit community.

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