NEW DELHI (AFP) – Opposition parties Thursday picked a former parliament speaker from India s lowest Dalit caste as their presidential candidate, pitting her against the ruling party s hot favourite Ram Nath Kovind — also from the marginalised community.
Following hours-long negotiations led by the main Congress party, 72-year-old Meira Kumar was named as the opposition s nominee for the presidential polls on July 17 when Pranab Mukherjee s term ends.
“All the 17 political parties met here today in the afternoon and have unanimously proposed the name of Shri Meira Kumar ji (an Indian honorific) for the forthcoming presidential elections,” Ghulam Nabi Azad, a senior Congress leader, told reporters.
“I don t think there could have been a better candidate for this post,” he said, calling her a “crusader for social justice”.
India has a special electoral college that votes for the president, which includes federal and state legislative members.
The rival parties pick came just days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) named Kovind, a Dalit lawyer, in a move seen as an attempt to woo low-caste voters to broaden its nationwide appeal.
Shunned by higher castes, Dalits generally perform the lowliest occupations, including scavenging on rubbish dumps, and are the poorest in terms of income, literacy and land.
The nominations follow huge protests last year by Dalit members, who make up around 17 percent of India s population.
They erupted after four young Dalits were stripped naked and publicly flogged after being falsely accused of killing a cow, an animal Hindus consider sacred.
The outrage was compounded by the savage beating of a pregnant woman and her husband after they refused to allow higher-caste men graze cattle on their land.
Kumar, a five-time MP, was a career diplomat who entered politics in 1985 and became India s first woman speaker in 2009 — a tough job in the country s often volatile and raucous parliament.
She is the daughter of late freedom fighter Babu Jagjivan Ram, a prominent leader for Dalits — previously known as “untouchables” who lie at the bottom of India s deeply entrenched social hierarchy.
If elected, she will be India s second Dalit president after K R Narayanan, who served from 1997 to 2002.
India s prime minister wields most of the executive power, but the president can send back some parliamentary bills for reconsideration and also plays a guiding role in the process of forming governments.