Unpretentious and restrained, President Ram Nath Kovind avoided publicity
In June 2021, when Ram Nath Kovind visited his village for the first time after taking office as the 14th President of India, he opted to travel by train. He took a helicopter just for the last mile connectivity. When the presidential helicopter landed in Kovind village, Paraunkh, Uttar Pradesh, it tilted and touched down. It was an emotional journey for him. He met old friends and relatives and prayed at the village temple. “It is the inspiration of this homeland (village) that has taken me from the High Court to the Supreme Court, from the Supreme Court to Rajya Sabha, from Rajya Sabha to Raj Bhavan and from Raj Bhavan to Rashtrapati Bhavan”, he remembers.
An incident during this visit, however, upset him. When he reached Kanpur, the movement of VIPs had caused traffic jams. A woman who suffered from post-Covid complications was held in the next block and was dead by the time she could be taken to hospital. When Kovind learned of this, he was deeply “anguished and upset”. Senior district officials were given a disguise and asked to publicly apologize to the family. It was the President’s way of connecting with the common man.
Unassuming and sober, Kovind avoided publicity, but he sometimes broke the strict protocol associated with the highest constitutional position. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Paraunkh last month, Kovind broke protocol and came to his village to play gracious host. While visiting his alma mater BNSD Inter College in Kanpur last year, he came down from the dais and touched the feet of his nonagenarian teachers, much to the surprise of everyone present. As he leaves office this month, Kovind, the second chairman of the Dalit community and the first of the BJP, can be proud of an uncontroversial stint at Rashtrapati Bhavan.
As president, Kovind followed the rulebook in letter and spirit. He shared a cordial and mutually respectful relationship with Modi. He was always quick to give his assent to laws approved by Parliament. He also rejected six petitions for clemency.
Kovind has always shown political neutrality. “His door was always open to opposition leaders and he gladly gave dates,” a senior source said. While the presidents follow the conventions established by their predecessors, Kovind has chosen to differ in some instances. Since the start of his term, he has kept religious functions and ceremonies outside the domain of the president in accordance with the secular nature of his office. The president’s estate has religious places for residents he has visited, but his public visits to religious institutions have always taken place outside the presidential palace. He visited temples, gurdwaras and churches outside the domain. “He thought religious functions should be held outside the presidential palace,” the source said.
Kovind visited the Ram Temple in Ayodhya last year and donated Rs 5 lakh from his personal funds for its construction. On Eid day 2020, he invited a young Muslim cyclist who was a ninth grade student in a school in Delhi to Rashtrapati Bhavan and presented him with a racing bike after learning of his dire financial situation.
Kovind has always been ready to welcome the common man to Rashtrapati Bhavan. “I stay in one part of the estate, the other part should be open to visitors,” he learned. “People had been intimidated by the presidential palace. He debunked it,” the source said. When a renovated playground is inaugurated inside the estate, he invites children from the slums to play there.
Being himself a lawyer, Kovind did not hesitate to remind the senior judiciary of the need for judicial reforms. Quoting Felix Frankfurter, former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, Kovind once told an assembly of judges: “History teaches us that the independence of the judiciary is compromised when the courts allow themselves to be drawn into passions of the day and take primary responsibility for choosing between competing political, economic and social pressures.
On another occasion, he told the judiciary that while the president could be criticized, there was no reason why members of the judiciary could not be arrested. “The three branches of government – the judiciary, the executive and the legislature – are bound to be models of good conduct. They must also be careful not to cross into each other’s finely defined spaces or provide the opportunity to read transgressions even when none are intentional,” he said.
Another distinct sentiment in Kovind’s speeches was the reverential references to Mahatma Gandhi and BR Ambedkar, two of his idols.
Kovind delivered a symbolic message during his last official function on June 14, a day before the announcement of the presidential election. He quoted Arjuna’s last shloka from the Gita where the warrior talks about getting clarity of vision and role. “My dear Krishna, O infallible, my delusion is now gone. I have regained my memory through your mercy, and am now firm and free from doubt and ready to act upon your instructions.