Bihar Governor Ram Nath Kovind’s name hardly rang a bell before he was declared as the NDA’s presidential candidate. In his political career, Kovind has always been an unassuming leader, who kowtowed to the Sangh Parivar’s ideological line.
Coming from a Scheduled Caste background, he resisted the temptation of either taking to radical Ambedkarism or stoking inherent caste conflict to steal the limelight. As a Rajya Sabha MP and in his gubernatorial assignment, Kovind always came across as an unassuming and ‘conforming constitutionalist’— perhaps an archetypal ‘swayamasevak’.
If there is an impression that Kovind is selected only to bring Dalits under the BJP fold, it would be far from reality. In fact, Kovind’s selection as the NDA’s presidential candidate is driven by an objective of deepening the Hindutva into those social segments which were inaccessible to the ideologues of Sangh Parivar. Kovind’s selection is certainly part of the larger political project of consolidating the Hindu identity.
This is not the first time that India would have a president from the socially disadvantaged class. KR Narayanan and Giani Zail Singh belonged to that genre of presidents. Yet none of them could convey an unambiguous political message and become part of a larger political project. The reason is not far to seek.
Except for the emergence of Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in the stewardship of Kanshi Ram-Mayawati, the Dalit leadership under Congress was monopolised by suave and foreign-educated Dalit leaders often representing the country’s most elite civil services — Indian Foreign Service (IFS). Narayanan caught the fancy of certain top political leaders in his stint as a diplomat. A suave and erudite Narayanan, however, was hardly identified with the Scheduled Caste of the Hindi heartland. Even Meira Kumar in her role as Speaker of the Lok Sabha was seen more as an elite leader of Lutyens’ Delhi and not as a Dalit leader. She was the daughter of a powerful Dalit leader Jagjivan Ram. Kumar was an IFS officer before she joined politics. The emergence of Lutyens’ Delhi’s elites as vanguard of the Dalit assertion never made the Congress endearing to the Dalits.
On the other hand, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leadership has been suffering from its own afflictions and limitations. Though the party gained traction among a wide section of Dalits and OBCs, it is largely seen as an upper caste party in the Hindi heartland. Mayawati’s emergence as the undisputed leader of Dalits stopped the BJP’s growth in the post-Babri mosque demolition phase in Uttar Pradesh. The BJP continued to get marginalised until it regained its bearings in 2017 Assembly elections of UP and co-opted a large section of Dalits and OBCs in a very strategic manner. The Sangh Parivar successfully included marginalised groups into the Hindutva fold.
Kovind’s proposed promotion to the post of president is a continuum of this strategy. He carries the image of a next-door-neighbour in Uttar Pradesh. Unlike Mayawati, who evokes extreme emotions, he has never flaunted his caste identity for political benefits. His grooming in the RSS enables him to remain firmly rooted to the ideological mooring without courting any controversy. The manner in which he deftly managed his stint as Bihar governor and maintained best of relationship with chief minister Nitish Kumar was illustrative of his political sagacity in managing even difficult situations.
Apparently Kovind’s ascension to the throne of president is sure to bring about a radical change of perception about the BJP and its ideological family. The Sangh Parivar will be seen as promoting a new breed of aspirational leadership from the subaltern classes which are not at odds with Hindutva.