Post Kovind’s Nomination, What Does BJP’s Dalit Strategy Look Like? 

Post Kovind’s Nomination, What Does BJP’s Dalit Strategy Look Like? Presidential nominee Kovind with Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. (Twitter.com/@AmitShah)
Snapshot
  • Ram Nath Kovind’s nomination for president reflects the BJP’s unceasing efforts at constituency transformation and enlargement

The current presidential poll, the fifteenth since Dr Rajendra Prasad was elected the first president of India in 1952, has acquired special significance as both the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party/National Democratic Alliance (BJP/NDA) candidate Ram Nath Kovind and the Congress/Opposition candidate Meira Kumar are Dalits by caste. Never before had the castes of presidential candidates been so important. K R Narayanan, the first Dalit candidate to be nominated for election to the office of president in 1997, was the choice of both the Congress and the Opposition, and, he pointedly requested the press to not ask about his caste. It is true that Narayanan was known more for his educational, diplomatic and vice-presidential credentials than his primordial one. No wonder that he received 95 per cent votes of the Electoral College, highest since 1952; his only rival T N Seshan, former chief election commissioner, got just five per cent of the votes.

The much hyped Dalit vs Dalit contest is really a non-issue in the current presidential poll. Socially, Meira Kumar had the best of company as her father Jagjivan Ram was a cabinet minister in Jawaharlal Nehru’s cabinet and she never knew any social injustices or discrimination that Dalits were then subjected to. Educationally, she received the best of education and competed for the Indian Foreign Services. Economically, she belonged to a wealthy family and never knew about any deprivations, rather, she led a very comfortable and affluent life. And, politically, she could get everything on a platter even without asking.

While it is good that the presidential poll is not going uncontested, trying to give it a Dalit vs Dalit dimension was uncalled for. Since the Congress-led Opposition tried to choose only a Dalit candidate, they are guilty of making the polls Dalit-centric. It is unfortunate that they considered only Dalit names – Meira Kumar, Sushil Kumar Shinde, Bhalchandra Mungekar and Prakash Ambedkar – for the post. That was a clear indication of their ‘reactive strategy’ to the BJP’s pro-active decision to field a Dalit. But, BJP had, at least, considered several non-Dalit names and finalised that of Kovind’s. The best bet for the Congress-led opposition would have been to back Kovind in order to not let the BJP monopolise the Dalit constituency. That could have replicated the 1997 scenario when there was near unanimity over the first Dalit presidential candidate, Narayanan.

What could be the objective of the Congress-led Opposition parties in precipitating this divisive Dalit politics? Are they trying to convey to the Dalit community that they too care for them? Was that the only way to do so? Had they been really interested in a Dalit president, why did they not propose one when they had the chance to, instead of choosing Pratibha Patil or Pranab Mukerjee? In both cases, they were in a position to nominate any Dalit candidate, be it Meira Kumar or any other, for election to the office of the president. Unfortunately, they have chosen a Dalit candidate when they know that she is sure to lose! Is that being pro-Dalit or really being anti-Dalit?

So, the non-BJP/NDA Opposition has fallen in a double trap. They have fallen into a BJP trap that took a ‘pro-active’ decision to field a Dalit, thereby giving it a lead in claiming to be pro-Dalit and sending the Opposition on the back foot. They have also fallen into their own trap of a fake ‘ideological divide’ by portraying Kovind as an ‘RSS-man’ and Meira as a ‘secularist’. Do they not know how a ‘secularist’ President in Pranab Mukerjee had gone so well with an RSS-BJP Prime Minister Narendra Modi? That is because any one who is sent to Raisina Hills detaches himself or herself from petty politics and assumes a stoic position, giving unprecedented grace and decorum to the august office.

It is not that Indian presidents had no differences of opinion with the prime ministers, but somehow, our political culture has prevented any constitutional showdown between them. The inkling of first such showdown was visible as early as in the Sixties when in an address to the Indian Law Institute in New Delhi, the first president Dr Rajendra Prasad suggested that future researchers should study whether there is any provision in the Constitution that binds the president of India to accept the advice of the council of ministers? Obviously, he was referring to Article 74(1) of the ‘original’ Constitution that said, “There shall be a council of ministers to aid and advise the President in the discharge of his functions”. Surely, Dr Rajendra Prasad was right and Indira Gandhi felt the necessity to make that advice binding by amending the Constitution for the forty-second time in 1976 during the Emergency.

While the Congress-led Opposition has fallen in that double trap, BJP appears to be making smart moves towards inclusive politics through constituency transformation. Earlier, the BJP had not concentrated on attracting the marginalised social groups namely the Other Backward Class (OBC) and Dalits. Since these two groups are very large in the nation’s demographic profile, no political party can really ignore them if it seriously wants to be in the race for political power.

By bringing in Kovind as presidential candidate, BJP has given clear indication of its seriousness to empower Dalits. It may be argued that making a Dalit a president may not lead to Dalit empowerment. True. But, we have to understand the potential effect of the sight of a Dalit holding the highest office of the Republic! Do we not know how Dalits take pride in the fact that Babasaheb Ambedkar was the chief architect of the Indian Constitution – though we all know that the Constitution was framed with the hard work of 299 best minds of India for three long years? So, democratic politics is not only substantive, it is also symbolic where populism, identity politics and psychological dimensions cannot be neglected altogether, especially in a society that has a long history of inequality, social injustice and discrimination.

By making Dalit its presidential candidate, the BJP is only pursuing its futuristic agenda. The process started soon after BJP’s massive win in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls in which OBCs and Dalits reposed confidence in Modi as Prime Minister. It paid dividend in the 2017 UP Assembly elections. So, Kovind’s candidature is not only a symbolic gesture at Dalit empowerment, but also a serious bid by the BJP at constituency transformation and enlargement, and inclusive politics for winning subsequent state assembly and parliamentary elections.

A K Verma is Director, Centre for the Study of Society and Politics, Kanpur.

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