His election is a key element of the party’s strategy for the 2019 election, and its aftermath.
The election of Ram Nath Kovind as the 14th president of India with a large majority of votes was expected as the BJP had enough members in the electoral college. In fact, the BJP had claimed in early July that it had the support of 40 political parties and three non-BJP chief ministers. In the election, Kovind received 66.65% of the votes cast, while Meira Kumar got 34.35%. There was cross-voting by the opposition but less than expected; the BJP had hoped to gain 70% of the votes. However, more important than the votes is what the BJP hopes to gain politically from Kovind’s election – strengthening of Dalit support to the BJP, a Dalit president sympathetic to Hindutva and division in opposition unity.
Strengthening subaltern Hindutva
The reason for the selection of a Dalit for the post of president lies in the recent attempt made by the BJP to strengthen its support base among Dalits in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere. The positive interface between the subaltern castes and Hindutva, especially the non-Yadav OBCs in UP can be traced back to the early 1990s, witnessed in the rise of leaders such as Kalyan Singh. The shift of a significant section of Dalits to Hindutva is a late phenomenon, primarily since the long campaign under the leadership of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah prior to the 2014 election. This was possible due to the shift from the politics of social justice to that of aspiration for development among sections of upwardly mobile Dalits, and the new strategies fashioned by the BJP to take advantage of this change in Dalit thinking in the 2000s. Dalits do not form a homogenous category and though different sub-castes share a common goal of social and political empowerment, Dalit discourse has never been monolithic and they compete with each other everywhere in the country. The BJP leadership employed the strategy of mobilising the smaller, marginalised and poorer non-Jatav Dalits, who were not attracted by the Ambedkarite mobilisation in the Hindi-heartland since the mid-1980s by the BSP. This strategy helps explain the considerable support that the BJP gained both during the 2014 national and 2017 assembly elections from Dalits, particularly the non-Jatav sub-castes in the Hindi heartland.
Consequently, today, as a result of these developments and sustained mobilisation among Dalits at the grassroots by the BJP – as the Saharanpur protests showed – Dalit discourse is divided into three groups in UP and elsewhere: pro-BSP, pro-BJP and an autonomous, aggressive section critical of both these parties, witnessed in the formation of the Bhim army. Hence, the ascendency of leaders like Kovind cannot merely be brushed aside as tokenism by the BJP, the seemingly symbolic step they hope has the potential to marginalise the other two streams of Dalit discourse and empower the pro-BJP stream.
The BJP has also followed a two-track strategy of bringing Dalit leaders into its fold – publicly accommodating popular leaders like Ram Vilas Paswan, Ramdas Athavale and Udit Raj, who were earlier part of Ambedkarite politics and leaders from the BSP; and silently investing in its ‘own’ Dalit leaders like Ram Nath Kovind and Vijay Sonkar Shashtri, who share the outlook of the RSS and BJP. While BJP has largely projected the former leaders in the electoral arena, at the organisational level, it has relied upon the leaders like Ram Nath Kovind to do the ground work.
A Dalit president sympathetic to Hindutva
It is against this backdrop of a new phase in the relationship between Hindutva and subaltern politics and the inner churning in the Dalit discourse in the country, particularly visible in UP, that Kovind’s eelction must be understood.
Kovind, a relatively unknown Dalit leader from Kanpur, belongs to the Koli sub-caste. The Kolis in 1991, keen to gain upward political mobility and economic betterment, formed the Akhil Bhartiya Koli Samaj to which as an educated member, Kovind, has provided leadership. One of the objectives of this organisation during the process of modernisation has been the annual celebration of leading figures, saints, emperor-warriors and women-warriors from the Koli caste, and the building of memorial parks and statues with the ‘help of the government’. This cultural activity has brought them close to the BJP which in recent years has been accommodative in promoting heroes and leaders of the smaller Dalit sub-castes in a bid to gain their political support.
However, unlike many other such non-Jatav Dalit leaders, Kovind has had a long association with the BJP-RSS, is close to the leadership and was president of the BJP Dalit Morcha from 1998 to 2002. He was also, the only BJP leader who appeared as a defence witness in support of Bangaru Laxman – the only Dalit appointed as BJP president – in the matter of CBI vs. Bangaru Laxman, in which the latter was convicted of corruption in the defence procurement process.
In this backdrop, moving Kovind from state governor to president signifies a new phase in the interplay of subaltern and Hindutva politics. While Dalit leaders across the ideological spectrum and diverse political background have been accommodated and employed to expand and consolidate the BJP’s social base among the Dalits, the highest post of the republic has been earmarked for a Dalit who hails from their own organisational matrix and shares their world-view. Kovind is not merely an instrumental ally of BJP like Raj and others; his ascendency signifies a political act markedly different from that of the general subaltern shift to Hindutva.
Dividing the opposition
The selection of a Dalit president by the BJP has succeeded in creating divisions in the attempt by opposition parties to create a mahagathbandan, which they hope will help them against the ruling party in the 2019 elections. Following the announcement of Kovind’s name as the BJP’s candidate, its ally and Lok Janshakti Party leader Ram Vilas Paswan declared that those opposing Kovind would be considered ‘anti-Dalit’. Mayawati’s guarded statement that she cannot oppose a Dalit candidate unless the opposition comes up with its own more popular Dalit nominee, revealed the dilemma that opposition parties found themselves in. The selection of Meira Kumar by the opposition parties created the rather unsavoury situation of Dalit-versus-Dalit for the highest position under the constitution, which should remain above politics.
The cracks in opposition unity is most manifest in Bihar where it has widened the growing rift between the Janata Dal (United) a major component of the mahagathbandan and its allies, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress. Some regional parties such as the Telangana Rashtra Samithi, Biju Janata Dal and Mulayam Singh Yadav’s supporters who are not part of the opposition alliance, extended their support to Kovind when his name was announced by the BJP. The opposition parties, particularly the Congress heading the alliance, by waiting for the ruling party to announce their candidate, missed an opportunity to announce an eminent person as the opposition candidate, which would have given them a moral advantage, helped maintain unity within the mahagathbandan and perhaps kept more opposition parties in their fold. One of the reasons for Nitish Kumar personally welcoming Kovind’s selection as the BJP’s candidate was the dithering within the opposition over the selection of a presidential candidate. Even within the Congress there are rumblings of discontent over the long time the leadership took to put forward their candidate.
The presidential elections have revealed the fissures within and between parties in the opposition alliance and its ability to sustain over time seems doubtful. Cross-voting by opposition MLAs took place in at least six states with the Congress party most affected by it. In Gujarat where elections are due in four months, eight Congress MLAs voted for Kovind, in Goa three. In Maharashtra only 77 MLAs out of 83 and in UP only 65 out of 73 MLAs belonging to opposition parties supported Meira. Clearly the opposition parties will have to work hard to sustain their alliance for the 2019 elections.
The BJP’s clever strategy of selecting Kovind for president has strengthened it politically in its preparation for the 2019 election. Kovind’s election signifies the combination of three significant factors – he is a Dalit from UP, electorally the most important state; it has contributed to the weakening of opposition unity; and it helps the BJP’s move to strengthen the pro-Hindutva subaltern, particularly the Dalit stream. The party hopes that with Kovind in Rashtrapati Bhavan they will be able to gain the support of large section of Dalits that will help them win the 2019 elections, particularly in large states such as UP. More important, post-2019 they will have a president amenable to their right-wing ideological world view, which could help them to introduce desired cultural and political changes in the functioning of Indian democracy.
Sudha Pai is a National Fellow of the Indian Council of Social Sciences.