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India’s Next President Could Be a Member of the ‘Untouchable’ Caste

Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP senior leader M.M. Joshi, left, and L.K. Advani accompany ruling National Democratic Alliance's presidential candidate Ram Nath Kovind, to file his nomination papers for the presidential elections in New Delhi, India, Friday, June 23, 2017. Kovind, a Dalit leader belonging to the lowest rank of Hinduism's caste hierarchy on Friday filed his nomination papers for the upcoming poll to elect the 15th President of India next month. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

The next potential president of India could be a member of the country’s poorest and most marginalized social group.

Ram Nath Kovind is the official nominee for president from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political party, and he is a member of the lowest caste in Indian society, the Dalits, formerly known as “untouchables,” according to The Guardian.

The Dalit caste was traditionally banished to the margins of Indian society, where they suffered the highest rates of poverty and social exclusion. But Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata party, has been wooing the support of the group, according to the report.

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On Monday, 5,000 state and federal officials voted in a secret ballot to decide the next president; the results will be announced next Thursday. The post of president is a visible but mostly ceremonial position, according to the Guardian.

Kovind, 71, the governor of the state of Bihar, would be the second Dalit president ever elected in India. He has been accused of supporting Hindu nationalist policies, working with the nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) or National Volunteer Organization, but has since said he will be an inclusive president, according to Newsweek.

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Activists from within the Dalit caste have been calling for an end to the caste system and better treatment for all Dalits in recent years. The country’s rigid social class system relegates 200 million people born into the Dalit caste to a life of poverty and jobs like sanitation, including removing the carcasses of deceased cows, the sacred Hindu animal.

But last year, after four Dalit men were beaten for removing the skin of a cow in traditional Dalit practice, members of the caste began calling for an end to the caste system and better treatment of Dalit members.

Modi responded by promising to focus on social justice issues in addition to economic issues in the future — perhaps Kovind, if elected, will help provide that.