India’s first Dalit president, KR Narayanan, in his inaugural address had said: “That the nation has found a consensus for its highest office in some one who has sprung from the grass-roots of our society and grown up in the dust and heat of this sacred land is symbolic of the fact that the concerns of the common man have now moved to the centrestage of our social and political life.”
Two decades on, for the second time in the history of India, a Dalit — who is also a longstanding BJP leader and former governor of Bihar — Ram Nath Kovind, has been elected to the highest office. Is this a sign that the welfare of Dalits is a key government priority?
Not quite. Sliding sub-plan allocations to Dalits marked the first two years of the current government.
Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes sub-plan allocations were cut in 2015-16 and 2016-17, Ashok Tanwar, president of Haryana Pradesh Congress Committee, told Firstpost.
On the face of it, the Rs 52,393-crore allocated for Scheduled Castes in the 2017 Union Budget is 35 percent higher than the Rs 38,833-crore allocated last year. “This year’s higher allocation came in a crucial election year, that conveys the intention of this government and its (lack of) seriousness to address Dalit issues,” said Tanwar.
This year's budget merges the plan and non-plan expenditure, and has replaced the sub-plan policy of a targeted budget with a general allocation for the welfare of the Scheduled Castes, a move Tanwar says, “goes against the welfare of the community because funds are no longer directed for the direct benefit of individuals, families and hamlets.”
Putting up a Dalit as the presidential candidate when the rising atrocities against Dalits across the country have not been addressed, is, according to Tanwar, “Mere eyewash, a political gesture aimed at gaining the community’s sympathy and vote.”
“A Dalit president will boost the morale of the community and especially the confidence to participate in governance,” Udit Raj, BJP leader and MP from Delhi North-West told Firstpost.
However symbolic, this move will instill pride in the Dalit community, said Ravindra Babu Pandula, MP from the Telugu Desam Party (TDP). And people will take note that it comes from “a political party (the BJP) that has (so far) been seen to be ‘against’ appointing Dalits to leadership positions.” With this leadership position, the BJP, however, has settled for a prestigious but largely figurative role with limited scope to act.
Will Kovind take his cues from Narayanan, who openly espoused the cause of Dalits and Adivasis in his speeches and defied the conventional rubber-stamp image of a President, as he put it, "not an executive president but a working president, and working within four corners of the Constitution."
Dalit leaders are hopeful of an encore.
“Good things for our community and for the people at large,” is what Ramesh Jigajinagi, Minister of State for Drinking Water and Sanitation anticipates from the new president. “We have huge expectations from the new president. The TDP supported his candidature because the cause of the downtrodden is our priority,” said Pandula.
Like Narayanan, who believed that educational opportunities for Dalits was the foundation of development, Sunil Kumar Mondal, TMC MP would like Kovind to espouse the cause of free residential education till the higher secondary level for the backward classes, with free healthcare.
The new president is also expected to speak up against the violence against Dalits. “We hope the new President of India sends the right message when Dalits face discrimination and we expect his word to carry weight and pressure the government to act,” said Raj.
“We expect the new President of India to live up to his role as the custodian of the Constitution. Like other Dalits, who have been given an opportunity to lead and outperformed expectations, he will achieve a lot if he exercises his power,” said Tanwar.
"For the president-elect, this will mean rising above his past political association and expressing the impartiality one expects from someone in his role,” observed Pandula.
India will be closely watching how the 14th President of India reacts to Dalit atrocities and how the government responds to his words.
Updated Date: Jul 20, 2017 20:38 PM