It is still not very clear why the BJP made Ram Nath Kovind, a non-Jatav Dalit from Uttar Pradesh, its nominee for the president’s post. Is it to arrest the disenchantment and alienation of Dalits with the BJP over the last three years? Is it to counter the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which still has 22% vote share in UP? Is it to neutralise the opposition and Dalits so they cannot brand the BJP as anti-Dalit? Is it to silence the educated and mobile Dalits who are fed up with the politics of symbolism and patron-client politics, and are demanding effective representation in the decision-making process? Or does it have some other hidden ideological agenda? Whatever the long term agenda, the immediate agenda is very clear. It is to cajole the anger of the agitating Dalit youths from Hyderabad to UP via Gujarat.
Humiliation, exclusion and suppression
We have seen how Dalits have suffered exclusion and suppression over the last three years, how have they faced the worst type of humiliation under BJP regimes. First, Rohith Vemula, a research scholar from Hyderabad Central University, was driven to suicide by the draconian university administration. However, the victim’s mother and friends have alleged that it all happened because of the pressure mounted by local and national BJP leadership in the university’s administration. When his mother demanded justice, a member of the commission set up by central government humiliated her by going beyond its mandate to ascertain her pedigree.
Dalits were humiliated by V.K. Singh, a cabinet minister in the NDA government, who compared them to dogs and went scot-free. Who can forget Una where Dalits were mercilessly beaten by gau rakshaks in broad daylight? The Gujarat government took cognisance of the incident only because it went viral on social media. After that, whenever Dalits protested, they were attacked. The Dalits continue to be agitated without justice.
The BJP’s anti-Dalit face came to fore once again in UP, where its vice president used obnoxious and vulgar language to describe Mayawati, one of the tallest Dalit leaders. After BSP cadres, as well as Mayawati herself, protested against him in the Rajya Sabha, he was symbolically shown the door. Later, the BJP’s leadership further humiliated Dalits by not only giving an assembly ticket to the ousted leader’s wife, but also making her a cabinet minister when the BJP came to power in UP. To rub salt on the wound of Dalits, soon after the formation of the government, the same leader was reinstated in the party with great fanfare.
Then came the cases of Delta Meghwal in Rajasthan and the rape of Dalit women in Bhadana, Haryana. Dalit women were raped and the guilty were not brought to book. One can add Saharanpur in UP to this list, where Dalits were beaten and their huts were burnt by so-called upper castes. The newly elected BJP government portrayed the Dalit youth-led Bhim Army to be the villain. Dalits were further humiliated in UP when the civil administration gave Dalits soap and shampoo before chief minster Adityanath’s visit. When people protested, no satisfactory answer was given by the government.
A leadership problem
On each of these occasions, angry Dalits protested with full might, on the roads and on virtual media, but they did not get justice. They were humiliated by government enquiries as the guilty were protected by BJP’s leadership.
Humiliation reached its zenith when BJP leaders had food with Dalits in their houses on camera. The same symbolism was depicted when BJP president Amit Shah took samrasta snan with Dalits in Madhya Pradesh. These gestures are blatantly humiliating. The so-called upper castes are simply reminding Dalits, ‘look you are so lowly even when we are eating with you or bathing with you’. The question is why do you have to remind Dalits again and again of their structural location and prove your hegemonic benevolence?
At another level, Dalits feel humiliated and demoralised when so-called Dalit leaders belonging to the BJP and NDA, like Ram Vilas Paswan, Thawar Chand Gehlot, Ramdas Athavle and Udit Raj, don’t speak a world on these gross atrocities on Dalits. In the same vein, the BJP-led NDA government took months to appoint a scheduled caste commissioner under Article 338 of the Indian constitution. Even after the appointment he remains silent. There is never a BJP Dalit spokesperson on TV to air the anguish of Dalits.
The prime minister’s statement, ‘shoot me if you want, but don’t target Dalits’, does not ask for stern action against the perpetrators of atrocities on Dalits. The statement depicts the prime minister’s helplessness and lack of political will, further demoralising Dalits, especially Dalit youth.
The first particular challenge for Kovind is to cushion the pain and agony of Dalits, who have been suffering for the past three years. How will he restore the lost pride of the Dalits? Moreover, will he be able to succeed in making reforms for their effective representation in different institutions of government if he becomes president of India? If he doesn’t succeed in doing so, he will not be able to halt the Dalits’ disenchantment with the BJP. The precedent suggests that chances of his success are very bleak.
I say this because it is not the first time that a Dalit has been fielded for the post of president of India. In 1997, exactly two decades earlier, K.R. Narayanan was elected as the first Dalit president. The Congress had nominated Narayanan to the post to counter the ever-increasing influence of BSP, not only in UP, but all over the country. However, the Congress could not stop the rise of the BSP in UP and it would gradually go on to wipe out Congress from UP. Whether the BJP will meet the same fate, only time will tell.
Constitutional values and Dalit justice
Another challenge for Kovind is to match the political acumen, assertion and independent nature of Narayanan. We have to accept the fact that Narayanan was one of the most assertive presidents of the country who upheld constitutional values to the core. At the outset, he was the first president who exercised his franchise by standing in a queue like an ordinary citizen of the country. This can be considered as a revolutionary step in democratic politics, because presidents before him feared to be dubbed as partisan.
He was also one of the few presidents who faced politically turbulent times under two different regimes, National Front (1997) and then BJP-led NDA government (1998). Amidst the chaos, he did not lose constitutional ethos. With strong political acumen, he upheld constitutional value, twice asking the government of the day to reconsider its advice on the use of Article 356.
First, in October 1997, he asked National Front’s cabinet to reconsider its decision to dismiss the then Kalyan Singh-led BJP government in UP, and forced them to hail his effort as a ‘victory of democracy’. Again in October 1998, Narayanan returned a Union cabinet resolution seeking the imposition of president’s rule in Bihar and the suspension of the assembly.
It is a coincidence that the outgoing president, Pranab Mukherjee, accepted both recommendations of presidential rule (first in Arunachal Pradesh and then in Uttarakhand) by the present BJP government. However, even the president’s ascent could not withhold the scrutiny of Supreme Court of India.
Can Kovind uphold constitutional values in the way Narayanan did? Can he raise the voice of the Dalits, as Narayanan did when he raised the issue of under-representation of marginalised sections in the Supreme Court? It is on these particular and national issues that Kovind’s candidature will be tested by the nation as a whole and by Dalits in particular.
Vivek Kumar is a professor of sociology at the school of social sciences, JNU.