During Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaign rally in Gaya on August 9, 2015, Bihar BJP leaders repeatedly referred to Ram Nath Kovind, and his Dalit identity. Kovind, now the BJP’s candidate for President of India, had been declared Governor of Bihar a day earlier.
Before that, the BJP had managed to engineer a rebellion by Nitish Kumar’s handpicked Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi, another Dalit, and bring him into the NDA. Manjhi’s induction and Kovind’s appointment was meant to dent the grand alliance of Nitish and Lalu Prasad at the Assembly elections. The move did not work then — but a little less than two years on, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party have decided to use Kovind’s membership of a Dalit community to frustrate the champions of identity politics at the elections to the country’s highest office.
Also, heartburn among the many presidential hopefuls in the BJP notwithstanding, there are few within the party or the larger Sangh Parivar who would publicly object to the move to install a Dalit in Rashtrapati Bhawan.
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Cow belt gambit
Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which account for 120 seats in Lok Sabha, have particular significance for the BJP-led NDA. The coalition won 104 of these seats in 2014; however, its limitations were exposed against the combined might of Lalu and Nitish in the 2015 Bihar Assembly elections. And in UP, following the results of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and the 2017 Assembly polls, the prospect of the SP and BSP joining hands in 2019 no longer appears unthinkable.
Kovind’s Dalit identity and UP domicile has the potential to loosen Mayawati’s hold on the community in the state. And Lalu and Nitish — both of whom are keen to project themselves as champions of Dalits in Bihar — will find it difficult to oppose the man who is best placed to become the first North Indian Dalit President. The previous Dalit occupant of Rashtrapati Bhawan, K R Narayanan, hailed from the South.
BJP president Amit Shah’s battle-ready election machinery will now roll into every nook and corner of these two politically crucial states to spread the word about a Dalit President from the cow belt. In Bihar, the BJP had delayed its move — this time, Amit Shah has a full two years before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Identifying with Dalits
Modi’s dream of spreading the BJP umbrella across the country hinges on deepening its presence among Dalits. This is essential to the party’s long-term plans, given its lack of support among Muslims. The Prime Minister has been trying to weave the BJP into the imagination and consciousness of Dalits by laying claim to the iconography around Dr B R Ambedkar. Between April 2015 and April 2016, the PM attended at least 10 programmes with links to Ambedkar, including a special celebration of the Constitution in Parliament in November 2015.
The Opposition has, however, stressed on incidents such as the death of a Dalit scholar in Hyderabad Central University, flogging of Dalits in Una by cow vigilantes and, after the formation of a BJP government in UP, Thakur-Dalit clashes in Saharanpur, to question the party’s commitment to Dalits.
Sending Kovind to Rashtrapati Bhawan is intended to blunt the Opposition’s argument about the BJP being a party of upper castes. The message is, in fact, likely to travel to Dalits well beyond the cow belt. Any attempt to portray the BJP as anti-Dalit will be politically countered with Kovind’s name.
Enlarging Modi’s pro-poor image
The BJP has also been working hard to craft a pro-poor image for the Prime Minister. And on Monday, Amit Shah spoke about the humble background (garib) of Kovind to solicit support for him. Despite having been a BJP spokesman, a government counsel in the Supreme Court and a Rajya Sabha MP, Kovind has stayed under the public radar. This, in a way, contributes to the imagery of his humble background — which contrasts sharply with that of other prominent Dalit leaders such as BSP supremo Mayawati and former Union Ministers Meira Kumar and Sushil Shinde. In this situation, the BJP hopes, Kovind’s elevation would burnish the Prime Minister’s pro-poor credentials. Expect the BJP to harp on this aspect for the next couple of years.
What remains to be seen
The fact, however, remains that Kovind has never been a mass leader whose personality might be expected to automatically resonate with the mass of people. His appointment as Bihar Governor had surprised most BJP leaders, and his nomination for President has come as a bigger surprise. Spreading the message that is crucial to the BJP will depend significantly on the efficiency of the party’s organisational machinery.
The symbolic significance of elevating a Dalit leader from the cow belt to the highest office is immense. The pulls and pressures of Lutyens’ politics have been set aside. Kovind may or may not be a rubber-stamp Head of State — but given the way he has acted in Patna’s Raj Bhawan, it is unlikely he will be a difficult President.