India parliament elects president, BJP-backed candidate favourite


NEW DELHI, July 17 (Reuters) - India's parliament began
voting on Monday for a new president in an election likely to be
won by a candidate backed by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party
(BJP), tightening its grip over top political positions.
    Ram Nath Kovind's ascent to the highest public office would
be the first by a leader who started out with the Rashtriya
Swayamsevak Sangh, or National Volunteers' Association, a Hindu
nationalist mentor of the BJP and its affiliates.
    The president's role is largely ceremonial but as the
custodian of the constitution, the president has played an
important role in times of uncertainty, such as when a general
election is inconclusive and a decision has to be made about
which party is best placed to form a government.
    Kovind, 72, who is from the low-caste Dalit community, is
facing Meira Kumar, a former parliament speaker and a
fellow-Dalit backed by the opposition Congress party.
    Prime Minister Narendra Modi, among the first to cast his
vote in parliament, said he looked forward to working with
    "My government will offer full cooperation to him," he told
members of parliament from the ruling coalition.
    Members of both houses of parliament and state assemblies
will vote on Monday and ballots will be counted on Thursday. The
BJP commands the most votes in parliament and in the states.
    Some presidents, such as outgoing President Pranab
Mukherjee, have tried to act as conscience-keepers, using their
constitutional authority as the head of state to defend India's
founding principles as a secular, diverse democracy.
    Modi's rivals say minority Muslims have feared for their
wellbeing and have been targeted by fringe Hindu groups since he
took office in 2014.
    Sonia Gandhi, the head of the Congress party, appealed to
members of parliament to vote for Kumar to protect India's
secular values.
    "We cannot and must not let India be hostage to those who
wish to impose upon it a narrow-minded, divisive and communal
vision," she said.

 (Reporting by Sanjeev Miglani and Zeyad Masroor Khan; Editing
by Robert Birsel)
 ((sanjeev.miglani@thomsonreuters.com; +91 11 4178 1020; Reuters
Messaging: sanjeev.miglani@thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net))


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