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Ram Nath Kovind as presidential candidate: BJP's decision is an attempt to shed its pro-upper caste image

At a public meeting at Hyderabad's Lal Bahadur stadium in August last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had made an impassioned plea in the wake of incidents of violence against Dalits.

"If you have a problem, if you feel like attacking someone, attack me, not my Dalit brothers. If you want to shoot anyone, shoot me, not my Dalit brothers,'' he had declared. It was then seen as a strange offensive because those attacking the Dalits were not his opponents but members of the extended Sangh Parivar.

In fact, just before Modi came to Hyderabad, a BJP MLA from the city, Raja Singh had praised those who had assaulted the Dalits in Una, Gujarat. In a video message on Facebook, he called those Dalits "galeez" (filthy) who indulge in cow slaughter. Justifying the act of the cow vigilante groups, Singh had said, "Those Dalits who were taking the cow, the cow meat, those who were beaten, it was a very good thing to happen.'' As a reprimand for those politically incorrect remarks, Singh was not allowed on the dais when Modi spoke.

 Ram Nath Kovind as presidential candidate: BJPs decision is an attempt to shed its pro-upper caste image

File image of Ram Nath Kovind. PTI

The year 2016 had also seen the BJP-Dalit relationship deteriorating after University of Hyderabad scholar Rohith Vemula, whose caste certificates at that time showed him to be a Dalit, committed suicide in January. The ABVP and Union labour minister Bandaru Dattatreya found themselves in the cross hairs of incidents that had led Vemula to take the extreme step. Several Opposition parties had latched on to the Dalit-led protest that acquired a sharp anti-BJP narrative.

Is the candidature of Ram Nath Kovind a belated attempt to reach out to the Dalit community, to assuage hurt sentiments? While it can be debated if Kovind has the credentials to gain entry to Raisina Hills, it is his Dalit identity that the BJP is showcasing as his calling card. It was stressed upon when Modi and Amit Shah called up the chief ministers and leaders of other supporting parties to drum up support. It ensured none of the leaders, even if they harboured any doubts, could say no as opposing a Dalit candidate would be seen as politically incorrect. In that sense, it is a political masterstroke.

Kovind is a lawyer by training and has headed the BJP's Dalit cell in the past. He has also worked as OSD to Morarji Desai and is known to keep a low-profile person. He does not ruffle feathers, in the manner many Dalit leaders have done, by indulging in name-calling to emphasise the caste divide. In fact, before he was made the Bihar Governor in 2015, he was seen as one of the more scholarly and liberal faces of the BJP, even though that did not take him far within the party hierarchy.

The selection of Kovind is an important political messaging by the BJP, especially in the cow belt. It will be showcased as part of the 'sabka saath, sabka vikas' template. That by appointing a member of the Dalit community to the top constitutional post, all is well.

A similar attempt was made in 1997 when KR Narayanan was elected as president. Despite his credentials as a diplomat of great stature, the then prime minister IK Gujral made it seem his only identity was that of a Dalit. On 15 August, 1997, Gujral said during his address from the ramparts of the Red Fort: "When Gandhi ji dreamt of India's future, he had said that the country will attain real freedom only on the day when a Dalit would become the president of this country. This is our great fortune that today on the eve of the golden jubilee of Independence, we have been able to fulfill this dream of Gandhi ji. In the person of KR Narayanan, we have been able to fulfill the dream of Gandhi ji.''

It would indeed be wonderful if Kovind's ascent to Rashtrapati Bhavan ushers in a more tolerant attitude towards Dalits in India. But it would be myopic to miss the politics in the decision. The choice of Kovind is a political acknowledgement by the BJP that the party is seen as an upper caste outfit. The party would like to be seen now as having taken a pro-Dalit position.

"It is part of the BJP's desperate attempt to appropriate the Ambedkar legacy,'' says VS Krishna, human rights activist. "It can be looked as a victory of Dalit assertion but I would imagine those who are at the forefront of Dalit struggles will not be impressed by symbolism of this sort.''

Take the example of Tamil Nadu. The AIADMK will support the NDA candidate but will it do anything to stop the honour killings that take place in the state. Between 2013 and 2016, 81 incidents of honour killings were reported in Tamil Nadu. Dalit families are pummelled into silence and submission after their son is killed because he dared to love and marry an upper caste girl. In most cases, the perpetrators are the Thevars and the Gounders who form the political and financial backbone of the ruling party. Will Kovind through his presidency be able to effect the change on the ground?

Dalit rights activist Kancha Ilaiah says even if it is a token gesture, having a Dalit president in these times of friction is good for the nation. "When attacks on Dalits happen despite having a Dalit president, Kovind will be under pressure to take a stand. Dalits can represent to him, there will be a connect,'' says Ilaiah. He points out that with this decision, the BJP has blunted the criticism that it did not push Dalits into positions of prominence unlike the Congress that gave the country a Dalit president, home minister and Lok Sabha Speaker.

In that sense, Kovind's candidature is less Pratibha Patil and more Giani Zail Singh. In 1982, the then prime minister Indira Gandhi decided to make her home minister Zail Singh, the Congress party's presidential candidate. This was in the backdrop of the turmoil in Punjab and she thought the symbolism of a Sikh president will make the community happy. It is part of recorded contemporary history that whatever points Indira Gandhi managed to score in assuaging the community, was undone by not keeping Zail Singh in the loop about Operation Bluestar as part of which the army stormed the Golden Temple. Zail Singh was reduced to a sad parody of a president in the midst of all the upheaval around him, emotionally distraught at the assault on his faith.

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Updated Date: Jun 19, 2017 22:58:55 IST

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