Today (17 July) Indian lawmakers are expected to elect Bihar Governor Ram Nath Kovind as the nation’s next president in a move that will strengthen the position of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist party.
According to Reuters the victory of the candidate put forward by Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is almost certain “because the electoral college, consisting of members of both houses of the federal parliament and state assemblies across the country, is loaded in favour of the BJP”. Voting takes place today and a result can be expected on Thursday (20 July).
Seventy-one-year-old Kovind’s potential appointment as India’s next president has worried religious minorities, after the former MP and governor of the eastern state of Bihar said that “Islam and Christianity are alien to the nation”.
“With a radical Hindu President, as well as a radical Hindu Prime Minister, religious minorities will have no-one left to appeal to if they feel under pressure,” according to Rolf Zeegers, analyst at Open Doors’ World Watch Research unit.
However, the fact that Kovind is from the lowest Dalit caste might mean he “will understand more than anyone else the problems still tied to castes in India”, says journalist John Dayal, speaking with news agency Fides.
Minority groups in the country, like the Dalits, Muslims and Christians, are often under pressure because of their faith; they can experience arbitrary arrests and violent attacks.
‘Atmosphere of fear’
The BJP’s presidential candidate reportedly has his roots in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), or National Volunteers’ Association, a right-wing, paramilitary volunteer organisation, which has long supported the idea of India becoming a Hindu nation. One of his close acquaintances, preferring to remain anonymous, recently told The Times of India: “Though Kovind has not been an active member of RSS per se, he has always been ideologically on the same boat”.
Reuters notes that this is especially concerning “at a time when the Modi government is pursuing a partisan agenda and Hindu hardliners have whipped up an atmosphere of fear among the country’s minorities”.
It is for this reason that most Christians and other minorities in the country favoured Kovind’s opponent, Meira Kumar, 72. The opposition’s candidate condemned the “prevailing atmosphere of fear” in India, saying: “Earlier there were religious beliefs and practices, but we never witnessed such an atmosphere of fear”, reports the website News Nation.
Kumar’s chances are thought to be miniscule, but the voting takes place by secret ballot and India’s politicians have a record of shifting loyalties.
The right to be free
Kumar, the first female speaker of the parliament and constitutional lawyer, was put forward by an opposition consisting of the centrist Congress and communist parties. Kumar’s party, the Indian National Congress, primarily endorses social liberalism – seeking to balance individual liberties and social justice – and secularism.
In May, Modi’s government introduced a ban on the sale of cattle for slaughter. This led to violent clashes between self-appointed “cow protectors” who attacked Muslims and Dalits over rumours that they had sold, bought, or killed cows for beef, as Human Rights Watch reported. Cows are considered sacred in Hinduism, India’s main religion, but millions of Indians, including Dalits, Muslims and Christians, have long consumed beef. It is one of the cheapest meats available, making it an attractive source of protein for India’s poor.
India’s Supreme Court suspended the ban on 13 July, saying it was a fundamental right and freedom of every citizen to choose their own food.
In response to an increase of inter-religious violence, thousands of people, including church groups and representatives of civil society, gathered in cities across India to protest against mounting religious intolerance and to express solidarity with the victims of the violence, under the banner “Not in My Name”.
‘A fight between two ideologies’
Kumar, who like Kovind is from a Dalit background, says the election is not merely about two candidates fighting for presidency, but “a fight [between] two ideologies”.
“I am fighting an ideological battle,” she said. “I am fighting for the ideology of equality, democratic values, freedom of expression and speech.”
Fr Suresh Mathew concurred, telling Fides: “One should not look at the presidential vote as a confrontation between two Dalits or between a man and a woman. It is rather a battle between two divergent and distinct ideologies. Kovind has a ‘saffron’ agenda [a symbol of Hindu radical groups]; Kumar is a person who defends the ideals and values of our constitution, which is [secular]” – meaning that it does not discriminate between religions.
Under India’s constitution, the executive power is with the Prime Minister and the council of Ministers. The primary duty of the President is to preserve, protect and defend the constitution and the law. Reuters writes that some presidents, like the current president Pranab Mukherjee, have tried to use “their constitutional authority as the head of state to defend India’s founding principles as a secular and diverse democracy”.
The result of this election is seen as critical, as India’s secular foundations are under increasing strain. Although freedom of religion is guaranteed by the country’s constitution, seven Indian states have so-called “anti-conversion laws” in place, making conversion from Hinduism a punishable act if done through “force, allurement or appeasement”.
On average, more than 15 Christians were attacked every week in India in 2016, according to the charity Open Doors. For some of them, their ‘offence’ was leaving Hinduism to become a Christian.
India is 15th on Open Doors’ 2017 World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian. Their churches, symbols and festive holidays have been threatened, as have their lives.
At the presentation of a report at the European Parliament last month, Peter Van Dalen, Dutch MEP and co-chair of the Intergroup on Freedom of Religion or Belief and Religious Tolerance, said: “Since Narendra Modi rose to power with his nationalist party in 2014, the situation has become worse and worse, and now the position of religious minorities has become even more alarming.”
Journalist John Dayal adds: “We ask candidate Kovind, who remains the favourite: do you think that Indian Muslim citizens and Christians, defined as ‘worshipers of foreign religions’, will continue to enjoy full citizenship, including the freedom to practice and preach their faith?”