Sandwiched between a tweet on how “Sitali Pranayam is useful” (the accompanying photo involves a particular contortion of the tongue) and a tweet by the Embassy of India in Beijing showing three generations of the Zhang family, “inspired by PM Modi” doing yoga in China, were three quick comments by @narendramodi on June 19 afternoon, putting his stamp on Bihar governor Ram Nath Kovind’s candidature as the presumptive President of India.
“Shri Ram Nath Kovind, a farmer’s son, comes from a humble background. He devoted his life to public service & worked for poor & marginalised,” the PM said in his first tweet.
“With his illustrious background in the legal arena, Shri Kovind’s knowledge and understanding of the Constitution will benefit the nation,” said the second tweet.
“I am sure Shri Ram Nath Kovind will make an exceptional President & continue to be a strong voice for the poor, downtrodden & marginalised,” the PM added as he signed off on the subject.
Later in the day, a photo on his Twitter timeline showed the Bihar governor greeting Mr Modi with a bunch of flowers, alongside another one shaking hands with BJP president Amit Shah.
Certainly, Kovind’s announcement came as a complete surprise to the Delhi press, although in Bihar the local media had speculated about the Governor’s move to Rashtrapati Bhawan. The fact of his Dalit caste has certainly helped catapult him to the top – it was for this exact reason that prime minister Modi and the BJP sent him to Bihar in August 2015, on the eve of the all-important Assembly election in Bihar.
It was thought at the time that Kovind, along with Dalit leaders Jitan Ram Manjhi and Ram Vilas Paswan, could help the BJP counter Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar’s focussed strategy on the extreme backward caste and Dalits bringing in the votes. (They did.)
It is for this exact same reason that Ram Nath Kovind is once again being feted by the BJP. At an August 27 rally in Patna to celebrate RJD leader Lalu Prasad Yadav’s birthday, it is being speculated that Uttar Pradesh’s main opposition leaders, Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party and Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party will share the stage.
If the Yadavs and the Dalits, sworn caste antagonists can dissolve their differences and come together to take on the BJP, it is clear the bell is being rung for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. After all, who can forget that the road to Delhi goes through UP? As he begins his fourth year in power, prime minister Modi can certainly read and smell the signs.
Kovind and Mayawati are both Dalits, but the former belongs to the Kori sub-caste which traditionally weaves cloth, while Mayawati belongs to the Chamar sub-caste. During the 2012 Assembly election in UP – when Mayawati handed the baton over to Akhilesh Yadav — Home minister Rajnath Singh had wanted Kovind to be the party’s Dalit face to take on Mayawati. But the Brahmin lobby pointed out that Kovind had once been an aide to former prime minister Morarji Desai.
It certainly helps that the Bihar governor was born in Kanpur Dehat in October 1945 and studied there.
The PM’s interest in Kovind isn’t limited to his birth antecedents. Fact is, the BJP has been reaching out to Nitish Kumar for some time and the Bihar chief minister has reciprocated in top order.
Only on May 27, Nitish met the PM over lunch to welcome Mauritius prime minister Pravind Jugnauth – a large part of Mauritius’ population of Indian origin hails from what is today Bihar – and later, after lunch as well. Only the day before, Nitish had sent Janata Dal (U) leader Sharad Yadav to represent the party at a luncheon meeting called by Congress president Sonia Gandhi, instead of going himself.
Interestingly, when the BJP sent Kovind to Bihar in 2015, Nitish was quite displeased. But in these two years, the two men are said to have become fast friends. Kovind worked hard with the state government to streamline higher education and in this context took great interest in picking the Vice-Chancellors of several state universities, like the Patna University, Magadh University and Jayaprakash Narain university, in big towns like Patna as well as in small towns like Arrah.
“The Bihar governor is a man of great integrity and honesty,” said Shaibal Gupta, director of the Asian Development Research Institute in Patna.
By picking Kovind, Modi is certainly signalling to his former ally, Nitish Kumar, that he could easily return to the coalition-that-once-was between the JD(U) and the BJP.
Now JD(U) sources have, of course, gone hoarse denying any such return to familiarity, but the BJP has much less to lose. The ambiguity also suits the Bihar chief minister just fine – it keeps his rambunctious coalition partner, Lalu Yadav, guessing.
Certainly, Modi, Amit Shah and the RSS leadership have picked a winner in Kovind. But the fact that the presumptive Rashtrapati remains a good friend of Rajnath Singh also means that the Home minister retains some skin in the game. Watch this space for more !