The announcement of Ramnath Kovind as the NDA nominee for the post of country’s President surprised many political pundits and thrown the opposition into disarray.
All at once, it laid to rest prospects of a range of BJP veterans including the party patriarch Lal Krishna Advani who, it was common knowledge, nurtured the thought of moving his address from Prithviraj Road to Raisina Hill to cap his political journey.
The closest the pundits came to guessing ruling BJP’s presidential nominee from Dalit\tribal community was Jharkhand governor Draupadi Murmu’s name, the tribal leader from Odisha. But next door Bihar’s Dalit governor Ramnath Kovind was on nobody’s radar except Modi’s. Two-term Rajya Sabha MP Kovind was not just another Dalit in the BJP camp.
He was not just an ordinary Dalit leader with strong ties with RSS. His USP lay somewhere else. He was from Uttar Pradesh. He fitted well into Modi’s plan of an ideal Dalit candidate belonging to a non-jatav community from UP to occupy the august office.
The idea of fielding a Dalit candidate of Uttar Pradesh as presidential nominee couldn’t have been more symbolic for a party and its leader working overtime to woo Dalits into the fold. It had the effect of killing two birds with a single stone.
With Modi’s overbearing personality and his personal charisma yielding terrific electoral results a party old-timer and a Sangh loyalist shall only be more than willing to play a rubber stamp. That is one. Secondly, BJP having pocketed crucial states is all set to don battle gear for the big 2019 Lok Sabha elections and therefore hoping to reap rich dividends by having a Dalit ensconced in Rashtrapati Bhavan.
The party’s appeal in the Dalit community had expanded with 40 Dalit MPs elected to the Lok Sabha in 2014 general elections. BJP was not just the biggest party in the Lok Sabha but also the party with maximum Dalit MPs – another first in the party’s electoral journey so far.
But no Dalit MP found his way to Modi’s first cabinet. He picked up two Dalit MPs 18 months and inducted them into his cabinet as state ministers.
So while the Modi government got itself busy planning to celebrate the 125th birth anniversary of Dr Ambedkar and lined up a string of events in memory of the great Dalit leader and the architect of Indian Constitution a Dalit student Rohith Vemula committed suicide at Hyderabad University following his battle with the University authorities who had allegedly stopped payment of his PhD fellowship.
Four Dalits were stripped, thrashed and flogged mercilessly by a mob of over 40 people in Gujarat’s Una on charges of carrying beef when, in fact, they had skinned a dead cow killed by a lion.
Incidentally, every single time Modi government coined a new slogan to set the new matrix of ‘development’ into motion, someone, was beefily beaten by vigilante thugs masquerading as ‘gau-rakshaks’ or terrorised into submission for not being ‘nationalistic’ enough with Dalits and minorities bearing the major brunt.
The Modi government’s Dalit game plan threatened to fall apart. Vidhan Sabha elections in four states, including Uttar Pradesh, were round the corner. This was one state BJP could ill-afford to lose having secured 71 out of 80 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
The party had to work in the double shift to woo Dalits – accounting for 21 per cent of the state’s population - for the 2017 UP elections and the results not only exceeded BJP’s expectations but blew in the face of opposition parties which counted on Dalit, minority and OBC votes to sail them through.
The BJP won 69 out of 85 reserved seats; its allies upped the seat count to 75 by winning six more seats. As Dalits gave thumbs up to BJP Modi’s politics of symbolism had won the day for him. If caste and identities did matter, Modi happened to be its biggest beneficiary. For Modi’s brand of politics, history had come full circle.
With UP comfortably in its kitty, BJP has already secured enough numbers that will sail through its presidential nominee if it boiled down to a contest. Modi’s Dalit card in Kovind has pushed the entire opposition against the wall.
Chinks are already showing in the hurriedly-cobbled ‘opposition unity’ which threatens to fall apart more than it shows signs of coming together. JD(U) leader and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, who has had his share of blow cold blow hot relationship with Modi, has openly thrown his weight behind BJP presidential nominee. Mulayam Singh Yadav, for whatever his standing and clout in his son Akhilesh’s Samajwadi Party, was more than forthcoming to announce his blind support for the BJP presidential nominee. Even former PM HD Deve Gowda's JD(S) and Orissa CM Naveen Patnaik's BJD have indicated their support for Kovind.
It is against this backdrop that the opposition shall sit on Thursday to decide upon its strategy of contesting the presidential elections. Despite Nitish’s stand on the issue, there are few who shall oppose the idea of fielding a joint opposition candidate against Kovind. But, they will have to come up with an equally powerful candidate to give the presidential race a semblance of a contest in an otherwise one-sided battle.
The opposition strategy shall be to refrain from making this an upper caste versus Dalit issue or else they shall be a loser even before the contest. That leaves little room for the opposition to manoeuvre. So this presidential contest may well see one Dalit candidate pitted against another Dalit candidate. Sonia Gandhi has already taken the lead in forging an opposition unity on presidential elections and she might be able to persuade the disparate parties to accept a Congress candidate.
Even as the opposition takes a call on its presidential candidate, Modi shall be watching from Lok Kalyan Marg how much of a united fight does the decimated opposition has in store for him. As for now, Modi’s bandwagon rolls on without a hitch. If there ever was a leader who would play the politics of symbolism with consummate ease and to the desired effect after Indira Gandhi, your guess shall be as good as mine.