The symbolism of a Dalit becoming head of state is enormously powerful. Clearly, the BJP has chosen to send out a strong political message by nominating Ram Nath Kovind as the NDA’s candidate for the presidential office. Its allies, and even parties outside the NDA’s fold, recognise the significance of a Dalit in Rashtrapati Bhavan and, not surprisingly, many have warmed to Kovind’s candidature despite their political differences with the BJP — JD(U) chief Nitish Kumar extended his party’s support on Wednesday. The Opposition is yet to declare its own candidate, but reports suggest that it is searching for an equally qualified Dalit against Kovind: Such congruence of political intent across party lines — that a Dalit ought to be the next president — is rare in Indian politics and, in this case, welcome. Only one of the 13 presidents in the seven decades since Independence has been a Dalit — K.R. Narayanan, diplomat and academician, has been the only Dalit to occupy the office of president and vice president since 1950 — while no Dalit has been prime minister.
Yet there is something jarring about the conversation that surrounds the presidential election. NDA leader and Union minister Ramvilas Paswan has claimed that any party that opposes Kovind will be deemed “anti-Dalit”. The fear of being branded anti-Dalit may well have played a large role in nudging the Opposition to search for a Dalit candidate of its own. Of course, a Dalit in Rashtrapati Bhavan will be a welcome outcome even if the presidential election has been reduced, with the complicity of both government and opposition, to a contest in political correctness. Yet, given the larger backdrop in which this election is taking place, there are sobering questions for both government and opposition to answer.
There is Dalit unrest across the country. The numerous eruptions may not fit a singular narrative, but common to the protests is anger against a perceived majoritarian oppression. Incidents like the suicide of research scholar Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad Central University campus, the violence against flayers of dead cattle in Una, and the Dalit-Thakur clashes in Saharanpur are joined together despite their distinct geographies and contexts. The political mainstream, however, has visibly failed to engage with the old and new questions these movements have raised. The government apparently believes it can brazen it out while the Opposition has unsuccessfully tried to co-opt the agitators. Not surprisingly, the Dalit street is now led by new formations and leaders, located outside the arena of electoral politics. The rich symbolism of the candidacy of a Dalit for president stands in danger of being undermined by the failures of both government and Opposition to address the substantive issues of social mobility and political representation that underly the ongoing unrest.