India is on the verge of electing a member of the lowest Hindu caste as its president.
Ram Nath Kovind, who was governor of the state of Bihar until last month, is expected to take high office after almost 5,000 state and federal MPs took part in a secret nationwide ballot on Monday.
Using specially designed violet ink pens with unique serial numbers, it’s expected that they will choose Kovind, a member of India’s poor dalit – or ‘untouchable’ – caste.
The official result of the parliamentary votes is not going to be known until Thursday.
However 71-year-old Kovind, who was nominated by PM Narendra Modi’s government in June, is enjoying wide cross-party support. It’s expected that he will comfortably beat Meira Kumar, who was nominated by the opposition Congress party. Kumar is also from the dalit community.
The president’s role in India is largely ceremonial, but the positoin can be important during times of political uncertainty – such as a hung Parliament – when the president’s office assumes greater power.
Kovind’s likely victory is expected to help Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) consolidate even greater political power.
Modi’s party swept to power in 2014 with a landslide victory, and has won a series of crucial local elections since then.
Dalits – known officially as scheduled castes but more colloquially, and pejoratively, as ‘untouchables’ – were traditionally believed to technically not fit into Hinduism’s complex caste system. As a result, they were considered ‘impure’ and were banished to the fringes of society – both historically and, sadly, in some instances in the present day.
Successive governments over the last 70 years have kept in place affirmative action programmes aimed at tackling prejudice and inequality.
The winner of the election will replace Pranab Mukherjee, a former senior member of the Congress party, as the next occupant of the Rashtrapati Bhawan – the huge 340-room, colonial-era presidential palace.
Mukherjee has held the office since 2012.