Ram Nath Kovind (71) was on Tuesday sworn in as India’s 14th President.
After K R Narayanan, who served from 1997 to 2002, Kovind is the second Dalit to be elected to the country’s top constitutional post. He is also the first Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member to occupy the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
In his first address as President after being administered the oath of office by Chief Justice J S Khehar, Kovind said: “The key to India’s success is its diversity. Our diversity is the core that makes us so unique. We need to build an India that is an economic leader as well as a moral exemplar. We need to sculpt a robust, high-growth economy, an educated, ethical and shared community, and an egalitarian society as envisioned by Mahatma Gandhi and Deen Dayal Upadhyay.”
The President, who reminisced about his long journey to the Rashtrapati Bhavan
from a mud-walled house in his ancestral village in Kanpur, said: “My journey has been a long one, and yet this journey is hardly mine alone. It is so telling of our nation and our society also.” Kovind said he will follow the basic mantra enshrined in the Preamble to the Constitution — of ensuring justice, liberty, equality and fraternity.
At a meeting of the BJP parliamentary party in the morning, Prime Minister Narendra Modi
said Kovind’s ascent to the top office of the country was a “significant milestone” in the journey started by the founder of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, Syama Prasad Mookerjee. The Jana Sangh, founded in 1951, was the earlier avatar of the BJP.
Kovind’s Dalit origins and humble background have been highlighted by the BJP leadership as it prepares to further consolidate its support base among Dalits in preparation for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
While Kovind didn’t mention Narayanan or first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru in his speech, he said he was following in the footsteps of stalwarts such as Rajendra Prasad, S Radhakrishnan, A P J Abdul Kalam and his immediate predecessor, Pranab Mukherjee. He recalled the contributions of Gandhi, Vallabhbhai Patel and B R Ambedkar in nation building. “These leaders did not believe that political freedom alone was enough. For them, it was crucial to also achieve economic and social freedom for millions of our people,” he said.
“Many of us intuitively believe” the 21st century will be an Indian century, guided and shaped by India and its accomplishments. “We need to build an India that is an economic leader as well as a moral exemplar. For us, those two touchstones can never be separate. They are and must forever be linked,” he said. He said it was “appropriate that the land of Lord Buddha should lead the world in its search for peace, tranquility and ecological balance.”