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Ram Nath Kovind, nominated presidential candidate of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), gestures as he attends an International Yoga Day event in New Delhi, India June 21, 2017. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi/Files(reuters_tickers)
By Zeyad Masroor Khan
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Indian lawmakers are set to elect the country's next president, drawn from the main Hindu nationalist group, in a vote on Monday, tightening the control of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's right-wing associates on positions of power.
Ram Nath Kovind's ascent to the highest public office will be the first for a leader reared in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) or National Volunteers' Association, the ideological mentor of Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its affiliates.
Under India's constitution, the prime minister and his cabinet colleagues wield executive power and the president remains above the fray.
But the president has a key role during political crises, such as when a parliament election is inconclusive, by deciding which political party is in the best position to form a government.
Some presidents, such as the current incumbent, 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 and diverse democracy.
Kovind, 72, a low-caste Dalit politician who served as the government's lawyer in the Supreme Court as well as a
state governor, said he would uphold the dignity of the president's office.
"Ever since I took over as governor, I have no political affiliation. The president of India is above politics," he said, while filing his nomination last month.
The BJP itself has been playing up Kovind's credentials as a candidate from the lowest Dalit caste in the Hindu social hierarchy which has been oppressed for centuries but is now being wooed by political parties for its votes.
But the opposition said Kovind's roots in the RSS, which has long espoused a Hindu India, remain a concern at a time when the Modi government is pursuing a partisan agenda and Hindu hardliners have whipped up an atmosphere of fear among the country's minorities.
Meira Kumar, the opposition candidate put up by the centrist Congress and communist parties, said her candidacy aimed to fight the ideology Kovind represents.
"This is an election to the country's highest office," she said. "I respect Kovindji. My fight is not against him but the ideology he represents."
Kovind's victory is considered a certainty because the electoral college, consisting of members of both houses of the federal parliament and state assemblies across the country, is loaded in favour of the ruling BJP.
Voting concludes on Monday and votes will be counted on Thursday.
Kovind's election will cap a series of top appointments Modi has made, strengthening the grip of the Hindu right on public offices, such as state chief ministers and governors, but also academic institutions and thinktanks.
In March, Modi picked Hindu hardliner Yogi Adityanath, who has been accused of inciting violence against India's Muslim minority, to lead the country's most populous state of Uttar Pradesh after his party won a landslide victory.
He has supported strong measures for cow protection, and also said minority groups that oppose yoga should either leave the country or drown themselves in the sea.
A long-time propagandist of the RSS runs the state of Haryana, neighbouring Delhi and home to the global outsourcing industry, while more than half-a-dozen governors have had early training in the RSS drills and patriotic lessons held countrywide at dawn each day.
A background in the RSS, known for its service to the country, can only help those in public life, the editor of an RSS mouthpiece said.
"A swayamsevak thinks about the motherland and unity of society. Anyone who is associated with this ideology should be widely respected," said Hitesh Shankar, editor of Panchjanya.
(Writing by Sanjeev Miglani, Editing by Clarence Fernandez)