The Dalit outreach of BJP has become evident with its choice of elevating Governor of Bihar Ram Nath Kovind as the next president of India. There is no doubt that Mr. Kovind on his own is a qualified lawyer and was nominated to Rajya Sabha twice by the party. He not only served on important parliamentary panels but also worked for the organisation. But for good or bad, his Dalit identity would remain the prism through which his election to the high office would be observed because Mr. Kovind belongs to the Kori community within Dalit umbrella. They belong to a less privileged section within Dalits which, in general parlance, are described as non-Jatavs. Post-independence, the Jatavs continue to dominate leadership position within Dalits but Mr. Kovind’s candidature might change the game in favour of the non-Jatavs.
It is well-known that BJP over the past three years has been the target of stringent criticism from the Congress and other Opposition parties on the larger Dalit issue. Despite getting a good portion of the non-Jatav vote in various assembly elections, various episodes were placing the ruling party in discomfiture. For instance, the BJP had come under considerable attack from the Congress after Rohith Vemula episode. Then came the elections in Bihar and much-contested statement of RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat on reservations. BJP tried its best during assembly election to damage control but the statement had cost BJP the Bihar elections.
Post-independence, the Jatavs continue to dominate leadership position within Dalits but Mr. Kovind’s candidature might change the game in favour of the non-Jatavs
BJP’s problem further got complicated because of the rise of cow vigilantes and violence they perpetrated. Social media has been flooded with the so-called cow rakshaks mercilessly beating up Dalits who have a considerable presence in the skinning business. Many academicians also argued that by depriving beef to Dalits, the ruling class has ended up depriving cheap source of protein to the most oppressed section of the Indian state. This recurrent theme got married to the issues Congress picked up related to the farming sector through first three years.
On the surface, BJP remained dismissive about the criticism but the party leadership did understand that the debate over the Dalit cause held the potential to paint BJP as anti-Dalit and pro-industrialists in front of the electorate.
By selecting Kovind, BJP wants to rest the debate on Dalit issue. The aim is not to create a consensus on the name but to push a candidate who can send a strong signal to the Dalit community that this choice was made with a purpose.
The message being that BJP remains committed to the Dalit cause. This is the reason why that BJP President Amit Shah continues to break bread with Dalits all through the expansion programme of BJP in India.
Congress may accuse BJP of symbolism but it also took the credit for making KR Narayanan as the first Dalit President of the Indian Republic. It is also not without reason that Mallikarjun Kharge is the leader of the Congress Party in Lok Sabha and Gulam Nabi Azad in Rajya Sabha. Former is a senior politician from Karnataka and a Dalit and latter hails from Jammu and a Muslim. The Gandhi-Nehru family members position themselves as Pandits from Kashmir, and through every important appointment, they try to recreate the triad of Muslim, Dalit and Brahmin. This community alliance building is something which former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi excelled at through her career.
The Gandhi-Nehru family members position themselves as Pandits from Kashmir, and through every important appointment, they try to recreate the triad of Muslim, Dalit and Brahmin
Another reason for this decision is that today BJP might have strong upper caste and OBC faces through India but doesn’t have a pan-Indian Dalit leader in its stable. For that matter, even Congress doesn’t have a Dalit leader to use as a poster boy but the party, at least, have a history of Dalit leadership, starting from non-other than the Father of the Indian Constitution Bhim Rao Ambedkar. Other Dalit leaders belonging to non-Congress fold like Mayawati remain rooted to state politics.
By elevating Mr. Kovind through a non-electoral and non- organisational process, BJP is making the benchmark for Dalit politics tougher for the UPA. The Opposition will need to be creative in fielding a candidate against Ram Nath Kovind. It will need to portray a face which either outshines the imagination around Mr. Kovind or be able to replace the very discourse on which his selection has taken place.
Through the first three years, the Opposition had the upper hand on the narrative on Dalit politics. This is BJP’s fitting answer to it. However, one will have to wait to see whether this act, in the long run, alter the electoral arithmetic for BJP or just dies after creating a noise on the mainstream and social media.