NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India began counting votes for its next president on Thursday with the ruling coalition's candidate, Ram Nath Kovind, clear favorite to win the largely ceremonial post, extending the government's control of top jobs.
Some 4,800 members of parliament and state assemblies cast votes this week to choose between Kovind and Meira Kumar, a former speaker backed by the main opposition Congress party as the 14th president.
Under the 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 general election is inconclusive, by deciding which party is in the best position to form a government.
Shekhar Gupta, a political commentator said Kovind, 72, a low-caste Dalit politician, had maintained a low-profile through his public career, a quality valued by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government.
"Kovind will not be an irritant for the Modi government that works with sense of total power, they don’t prefer any distraction to their plans."
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's ascent to the highest public office would be the first for a leader reared in the powerful Hindu revivalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) or National Volunteers' Association, the ideological mentor of the BJP.
Modi, himself, was associated early on with the RSS that has long propagated a Hindu-first India.
Kovind's victory would cap a series of top appointments Modi has made, strengthening the grip of the Hindu right on public offices, such as governors, state chief ministers and the heads of universities.
Kovind said he was committed to the constitution, with India a secular democratic republic.
"I respect the Indian constitution and no political interest can be above the rule enshrined in the rule book," Kovind told Reuters this month.
The opposition's Kumar, also a Dalit, said her candidacy aimed to fight the ideology Kovind represents.
Editing by Sanjeev Miglani, Robert Birsel