Prime Minister Narendra Modi with BJP chief Amit Shah and M. Venkaiah Naidu, the NDA's candidate for the Aug. 5 vice presidential election, at the BJP headquarters New Delhi, July 17, 2017. (IANS photo)

NEW DELHI — Lawmakers voted July 17 to choose India’s next president in an election widely expected to be won by a little-known member of a Hindu political group closely allied to India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

The likely winner, Ram Nath Kovind, 71, is the former governor of the eastern state of Bihar and a longtime associate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or National Volunteer Corps, a Hindu group that has long been accused of stoking religious hatred against Muslims.

The group is also the ideological parent of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP, which controls enough seats in federal and state legislatures to push its favored candidate. The votes from the July 17 election will be counted July 20, with Kovind expected to win easily.

The president’s role in India is largely ceremonial, but the position can be important during times of political uncertainty such as a hung Parliament, when the office assumes greater power.

Kovind’s likely victory is expected to help Modi and the BJP consolidate even greater political power. The party swept to power in 2014 and has won a series of crucial local polls since then.

The ruling party has projected Kovind as a leader from the Dalit community, which is at the lowest end of the complex hierarchy of caste in Hinduism.

Kovind’s main opponent is Meira Kumar of the Congress party. Kumar is a former diplomat and long-standing federal lawmaker who is also from the Dalit caste group.

The winner will replace Pranab Mukherjee, a former senior member of the Congress party, as the next occupant of Rashtrapati Bhawan, the massive 340-room, colonial era presidential palace. Mukherjee has held the office since 2012.

IANS further reports that  Information and Broadcasting Minister and senior BJP leader M. Venkaiah Naidu was chosen July 17 as the ruling National Democratic Alliance's candidate for the Aug. 5 vice presidential election, bringing to an end the suspense over the ruling combine's nominee for the constitutional post.

BJP President Amit Shah announced his candidature after a 90-minute meeting of the BJP's Central Parliamentary Board chaired by Shah and attended by top leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It was said to have been a smooth affair with Naidu having emerged as the front-runner throughout the day.

"Venkaiah is a senior political leader across party lines and is a senior leader of the BJP which he had been associated from his youth. He is the unanimous choice of the BJP and all the NDA constituents who have welcomed his candidature," Shah told reporters after the meeting.

Shah said Naidu had a humble beginning and hailed from a farmer's family. Shah further described Naidu as a successful minister in the Modi government and added that he is handling the Urban Development and Information and Broadcasting ministries.

Indications that Naidu, 68, was an automatic choice came out after his meeting with the prime minister July 17 morning and informal consultations continued among leaders later that day. Naidu, who maintains he is keen on continuing in active politics, gave hints that he may have changed his mind when he told reporters that any decision by the BJP will be followed by party members.

If elected vice president, Naidu will also be the ex officio chairman of the Rajya Sabha where the BJP still lacks a majority. With friends across party lines and an amiable nature, Naidu is expected to steer the proceedings in the upper house through possible turbulence.

He had been associated with the BJP since his youth and was an Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad leader and students’ union leader. He was associated with the Jayaprakash Narayan movement, was an MLA twice in Andhra Pradesh and Rural Development minister in the Vajpayee government. He also served as president of the BJP twice.

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