It Could Happen to You

From farmer's son to President, Ram Nath Kovind's story is a case of Dalit empowerment

In his village, Paraunkh, villagers talk about how difficult life was for the Dalit family.

 |  It Could Happen to You  |  4-minute read |   20-07-2017
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For the last one month, a sleepy little village, Paraunkh, 110km from Kanpur, has been sending up prayers to goddess Pathri Devi. The goddess has clearly listened to them. Today, one of their own, Ram Nath Kovind, has become the 14th President of India. Today, the village will celebrate like never before.

The villagers talk about how difficult life was for the Dalit family, how father Maikulal Kori eked out a living for his family of nine children by running a small grocery store, how “Ram Nath” learnt his first lessons under the ancient pipal tree, how sharp he was, how fast he learnt things and remembered those, how spiritual he was.

His old classmates still reminisce about the little boy reciting Ramayana and Gita at a tender age; that they all walked barefoot eight km every day to attend high school in a village nearby. Unlike many of his mates, “Ram Nath” had gone to Kanpur to pursue higher studies and eventually to practice law in Delhi in the 1970s.

By the time he became personal assistant to former Prime Minister Morarji Desai in the late ’70s, the village had realised that they had a star in their midst. When in 1994, he became a Rajya Sabha MP, they had stopped being surprised.

kovindbd_072017063500.jpgAs Bihar governor Kovind reportedly played a role in reducing the bitterness between PM Modi and Nitish Kumar.

The rest is history: Ram Nath Kovind developed Paraunkh into a "model village", using MP funds — paved roads, high school for girls, a State Bank of India branch, electricity meters in every house — even donating his ancestral home to the village (which became a place for solemnising marriages).

Ask anyone and they will show you the way to the family home — partly in ruins and partly a community centre. “Services are free for all who live in this village,” says Anil Kumar, Kovind’s nephew.

Not just the village, he has contributed to the development of Kanpur city as MP, developing stretches of barren land into some of the best places to live in — from Indira Nagar near IIT to the Maharishi Dayanand Vihaar in Kalyanpur — with well-tiled, shining roads, trees and steel chairs for the elderly to rest.

Like that little village, one out of nearly seven lakh villages in India, no one really knew of Ram Nath Kovind, when his name was announced on June 19 as the NDA presidential candidate.

Prime Minister Modi had to diffuse the confusion through a series of tweets: “Shri Ram Nath Kovind, a farmer’s son, comes from a humble background. He devoted his life to public service & worked for poor & marginalised.” “With his illustrious background in the legal arena, Shri Kovind’s knowledge and understanding of the Constitution will benefit the nation.” “I am sure Shri Ram Nath Kovind will make an exceptional President & continue to be a strong voice for the poor, downtrodden & marginalised.”

Ram Nath Kovind was always close to senior RSS leaders, especially Dr Krishna Gopal, RSS joint general secretary, in-charge of coordination with the BJP. But he had come in the good books of the BJP during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. A Kori Dalit (a caste group that forms the biggest Dalit chunk in UP after Jatavs and Passis), he was the face BJP President Amit Shah chose, to cobble together a non-Jatav Dalit alliance against BSP chief Mayawati. Kovind had accepted the high command wish with grace: from BJP’s Dalit Morcha president, a national position, he became the BJP general secretary in UP, a state-level post.

His regard for party discipline had reached the PM’s ears. During the Bihar Assembly election campaign in 2015, the PM showcased “Shriman Ram Nath Kovindji” in his speeches, as someone who “has given his all” to the welfare of the oppressed, the dispossessed, the Dalit, the backward and the extremely backward “all his life”.

In August 2015, Kovind was appointed the governor of Bihar — one whom Bihar CM Nitish Kumar has hailed as an “ideal governor,” “impartial,” “a stickler for constitutional propriety” and one who, unlike many of his predecessors, always consulted the CM.

As Bihar governor he reportedly played a role in reducing the bitterness between Modi and Nitish Kumar. Quiet, humble, modest and a stickler for rules, his Patna Raj Bhavan never saw him lose his temper, nor refuse an invitation from the staff.

He liked to spend time with books, watching television only for news. Father of a son, Prashant, and a daughter, Swati, Kovind and his wife Savita believed in living simple, spartan lives.

President Kovind’s is a classic story of Dalit empowerment, one that is also closely linked to the identity politics of the Hindi heartland, especially at a time of rising caste-violence and escalating assertion by the electorally formidable Dalit community.

Also read: 5 things to expect from Ram Nath Kovind as he inches towards Rashtrapati Bhavan


Damayanti Datta Damayanti Datta @dattadamayanti

The writer is Executive Editor, India Today.

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