The most common image of Ram Nath Kovind that I have in my mind is an unusually quiet, slightly smiling political worker who would be preoccupied in his work without being bothered by the on-goings at 11 Ashok Road - the headquarters of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) .
Kovind never truly became the face of the BJP in a manner that spokespersons tend to become these days. Even on being appointed as national spokesperson for the party, he stuck to his profile as the essential organisational man quietly working without attracting publicity for his work.
Unlike the garrulous, shouting spokespersons, one had to spare time to know the thoughts of Ram Nath Kovind on any burning topic. And that’s how he became the ‘go-to’ person for dozens of journalists writing about the BJP on a regular basis. There would be days when some reporter knew the aspects of a certain issue but found themselves ill-equipped to write anything full fledged due to lack of a perspective or background. That’s when one looked for Ram Nath Kovind, either in the Scheduled Caste Morcha Room or one of the quieter corners of the complex, to gain the accurate insight.
His knowledge about the Indian Constitution, history of the struggles of Dalits and the deprived sections of the Indian electorate, the party constitution often presented an insight which a ‘typical’ spokesperson could not. Sometimes, just talking to him made a complex issue fall into place. Perhaps, that’s the reason why he addressed only a couple of briefings as a national spokesperson. He always preferred more focused organisational work. Even during his two stints in the Rajya Sabha, one never really saw him join the shouting brigade.
Perhaps, that is the reason why journalists writing about BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) were shocked to see some celebrated editors and even senior politicians mock at the ‘unknown’ stature of Kovind, soon after BJP president Amit Shah announced his name.
Reporters have already written how his humble background was never an impediment in devoting time and resources for helping out those really in need of social upliftment. His initiative to build schools in the village because children had to trudge a dozen kilometres for education, the decision to give up his ancestral property for a ‘community centre’ in the village denote that he worked for ‘empowerment’ of the poor much before this word became fashionable in power circles.
To my mind, the very fact that he declined to join the Central Services, despite qualifying the rigorous tests and opting to be a political worker is enough indication of how Kovind thinks. How many young men from well-to-do, resourceful families would opt out after selection in the ‘allied’ services, leave alone a young man from a poor, Dalit, peasant family?
Now that the Bihar Governor is all set to occupy the biggest house on Raisina Hills it may be relevant to point out that the decision to choose him as the candidate does not end with being a Dalit. It means that in the Modi-Shah regime the question of empowerment would be wedded to the ‘nationalist’ ideology.
It also means that empowerment, in this case, does not exactly mean the strident, overly aggressive posture of the Ambedkar-ites but a more inclusive, softer movement that gels with the ‘cultural nationalism’ of the RSS ideology.
Narendra Modi, whose election campaign in 2014 emphasised his OBC background as well as being a ‘chaiwala’, is actually the more popular among the savarnas of the Hindi heartland than many leaders in the last many decades. Selection of Kovind must be viewed in the same mould.
That is why, the RSS movement to empower the Dalits is called Samajik Samrasta, to denote that it is anti-none.
With a chaiwala as Prime Minister and a gareeb kisan ka beta as President, Modi can make up for the losses the BJP might incur in states like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhatisgarh and Gujarat where the party has reached a saturation point.
As for Uttar Pradesh, the state can now boast of both the Prime Minister and the President. Therefore, it may be myopic to judge this move just as a non-Jatav stroke.
The only issue left to address now could be that of moving beyond the North to more uncharted territories. Perhaps the choice of the Vice President would lift the veil on that. Who knows?
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