By naming Bihar Governor Ram Nath Kovind as the NDA’s presidential candidate, the BJP has made its move in the high-profile contest for the country’s highest constitutional post. There is no doubt that the candidature of Governor Kovind, apart from apparently being an all-round surprise, is intensely political. Known, or rather not known to be a non-controversial politician, if elected, as he is likely to be, he will only be the second Dalit to become president — the first was K.R. Narayanan — and the first to belong to the Hindi heartland. In naming Kovind, the BJP clearly hopes to deflate and divide an Opposition unity still in the making. It will be difficult, the BJP obviously gambles, especially for parties that fly the flag of “social justice”, to oppose a candidate who is a Dalit.
If the NDA succeeds in opening the gates of Rashtrapati Bhawan to India’s second Dalit president, it will be arguably taking a significant leap forward in advancing the political project of shaking off the mantle of the Brahmin-Bania party that favours the relatively privileged on the socio-economic ladder and remaking itself as a vehicle for the aspirations of the backward and the disadvantaged. Of course, this is not a new programme. Ever since Narendra Modi’s party spectacularly weaned support from erstwhile strongholds and vote banks of other parties, including and especially among Dalits, in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, it has made determined efforts to build on its success. In fact, the demonetisation decision, taken ahead of the Uttar Pradesh assembly polls, could be seen as a continuation of this story — by all accounts, and even in the face of gathering evidence to the contrary, the BJP has succeeded in projecting its disruptive move as a pro-poor decision meant to be a leveller, affecting the rich as much, if not more. Having said that, however, it is also true that the BJP’s Dalit outreach is an enormously embattled project. In the three years that it has been in power, the Modi government has presided over an unprecedented Dalit turmoil. From the nation-wide protests sparked by the suicide on a Hyderabad university campus by Rohith Vemula, and the agitation in the wake of the atrocity wreaked by cow vigilantes on a Dalit family at Una, Gujarat, to the Dalit-Thakur violence in Saharanpur, UP — a new phase of Dalit protest and politics could be said to have begun. This mobilisation has thrown up a new leadership and uses new tools. It is all the more undeniable and powerful for being born in and spreading into a non-party political space.
The BJP has played its hand. Its impact on its intended audience — the Dalits — will only be revealed in the long term. For now, it is up to the opposition to join the political contest for president.