July 04, 2020
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Race Beyond Raisina

BJP’s choice flummoxes Opposition. The party sets out to score more politically.

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Race Beyond Raisina
All Poised
Ram Nath Kovind, the ruling BJP’s presidential nominee
Photograph by Jitender Gupta
Race Beyond Raisina

There goes a Chanakya quote: Prakalp ki safalta uski gopniyata par nirbhar karti hai aur woh gop­niya tab tak rahti hai jab tak chaar kaano tak seemit ho. That is, a project’s success depends upon its secrecy and it remains a sec­ret only if it is restricted to four ears (between two persons). This advice from the 4th-century BC philosopher-­jurist’s Arthashastra is often served to BJP workers by the party’s president Amit Shah, even as he himself revels in the art of inscrutability.

This was once again on display in the way the government went about selecting the presidential nominee. The choice of Ram Nath Kovind, a learned but unassuming Dalit leader from Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh, stumped ever­yone, both within the party and outside. In one stroke, the Opposition’s unity—whatever little—was decimated and its leaders were left fumbling for a response. After much confusion and confabulation, the Opposition nominated former Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar as its candi­date against Kovind.

The Opposition hopes the Dalit-woman combine card will ensure a contest and keep the flock together. BSP chief Mayawati had earlier welcomed Kovind’s candidature, falling short of extending support yet. Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, who had favoured Kovind, may also have second thoughts with Meira, a native of Ara in Bhojpur district, being a ‘Bihar ki beti’.

The ruling BJP is least worried, and is sure about its calculation. The party rem­ains focused on shrugging off the image of a pro-upper caste and anti-Dalit party. Kovind’s candidature is also an attempt at consolidation of non-Jatav Dalit votes to take on Mayawati (a Jatav) in her UP and prop up a leader under the larger Dalit umbrella for political gains in other parts of the country. While Mayawati, who has modelled herself as one of the biggest Dalit leaders, has been shrinking in stature, the BJP has steadily made gains by chipping away at her poli­tical base. Even BJP’s most strident critics admit that Kovind for President is quite a masterstroke.

The name of Kovind, 71, came as a surprise even for senior BJP leaders who constitute the parliamentary board, the party’s highest decision-making body. Those who met on June 19 to take a final decision were as clueless as anybody else outside the party. Only the top two, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Shah, comprising the four ears of decision-making, knew the final choice. The other members, including senior Cabinet ministers Rajnath Singh, Arun Jait­ley, Sushma Swaraj, Ven­kaiah Naidu, Ananth Kumar and Thawarchand Gehlot, had no idea.

It appears to have been a done deal before the meeting: Kovind, who is the Bihar governor since August 2015, was informed and his consent taken the previous night. “It was as much a surprise for him, as it was for the others. His family was away to Singa­pore for a holiday and he asked them to return and be with him,” says a senior party leader.


Only PM and Amit Shah knew the BJP’s  final choice of candidate

Photograph by Tribhuvan Tiwari

BJP believes the Kovind outreach will work beyond his Kori identity to benefit the party in states like Gujarat that goes to polls this year.

The parliamentary board meeting did not last long. By now familiar with Shah’s style of functioning, the members left the final decision to him. Sources say the BJP head stepped aside with Modi for a few minutes and retu­rned to announce Kovind’s name. Even as Shah explained to the members the rationale of choosing Kovind, the PM is believed to have spoken to Congress President Sonia Gandhi and ex-PM Manmohan Singh about the NDA’s presidential candidate—and expressed the hope that they would not insist on a contest. At 2 pm, an hour after the meeting started, Shah came out and ann­ounced the name to the media.

Senior BJP leaders got to know of the decision just an hour before everyone else. Despite figuring on the panel that undertook consultations over the presidential candidate with allies and Opposition parties, Rajnath, Jaitley and Venkaiah had no inkling about the final name. Social justice minister Gehlot’s name itself had come under speculation among several others that were bandied about as possible NDA nominees in the past few months. Gehlot’s name had come in circulation when the party leaders hinted that the top brass were looking for either a Dalit candidate or a tribal like Jharkhand governor Draupadi Murmu. Even at that time, Kovind’s name as a possible candidate, ticking the Dalit box, never came up.

The party leaders got another hint: it will be a man from within the party with the requisite stature for the President. Even as Kovind ticked another box, nob­ody had an inkling. “It is mainly because Kovind always maintained a low profile, like most workers associated with the Sangh Parivaar,” says a senior BJP leader. “He is not into self-publicity and is the quintessential organisation man. He has always done whatever work the party has assigned to him, and more, sincerely and quietly.”

Even as one of the national spokespersons for the BJP in 2010, Kovind never tried to seek limelight or become the face of the party as is the wont of some others who see the job as a networking opportunity and a step towards mini stardom. Kovind was always available if a mediaperson reached out to him for perspective or breaking down a complex issue. He had knowledge of the party’s set-up and the Indian Consti­tution, while he had been insightful about the evolution of the Dalit movement. Even during his two stints in the Rajya Sabha, Kovind preferred not to be a part of the shouting brigade, but focused on the work of various parliamentary committees in which he was a member: on Welfare of SC and STs and that of Social Justice and Empowerment.

Kovind’s modest and self-effacing manner tic­ked the most important box: Modi’s approval. The PM is believed to hold in esteem self-made but grounded people with humble origins. “Shri Ram Nath Kovind, a farmer’s son, comes from a humble background. He devoted his life to public service & worked for poor & marginalized… I am sure he will make an exceptional President,” said Modi’s tweet soon after his candidature was announced. Both Modi and Shah carefully avoided identifying Kovind as a Dalit in their social media messages.

A senior party functionary says the choice of Kovind actually should not have come as a surprise, especially to those within the party. “The selection of the candidate started from the premise that the party will go with a Dalit candidate,” the leader points out. “Names of tribal candidates were in circulation, but they were not under party’s consideration because the tribals have been with the BJP. They have voted for the party in Orissa, Northeast, Rajasthan and Gujarat. Reaching out to Dalits is more important.”


Opposition leaders, after announcing their presidential choice

Photograph by Jitender Gupta

Support of Dalits has become crucial for the BJP, seeking a second term in 2019. The party has almost reached its pinnacle in states like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Gujarat. It needs to tap into the new voter-base to keep its victory margins intact. Uttar Pradesh has always been a challenge.

Kovind, belonging to the Kori community that is the third-largest among Dalits of UP, is expected to bolster the party’s chances in the state. Badri Nara­yan of JNU says that a new political formation is definitely on the anvil in UP. “Dalits of the state are being fostered into a new identity. A new Dalit sammellan (conference) is in the works,” the professor at the university’s School of Social Sciences tells Outlook.

A senior BJP leader explains the need for forging the new Dalit equation. “Dalits are not natural BJP voters. With the Opposition’s sustained campaign painting the BJP as anti-Dalit and pro-upper caste, we had to shake up things,” notes the veteran. “Though a chunk of Dalits has come into the BJP fold, as borne out by 2014 Lok Sabha and now the UP Assembly elections, we need to consolidate further.” The party polled nearly two-thirds of non-Jatav votes in the 2017 assembly polls, but a further bolstering is required, especially with the 20 per cent Muslim votes likely to remain outside the party’s kitty.

JNU’s Sudha Pai, who is an author of several books on Dalits, says that the BJP has been targeting non-Jatav Dalit votes in UP for a long time now, and they have succeeded to a large extent. A new social coalition emerged in the country’s most populous state with OBCs and a large number of Dalits going with the BJP. However, she feels the party has to make an extra effort to paper over the cracks that appeared in the form of rec­ent Saharanpur riots, the emergence of a Bhim Sena and the Patidar agitation in the PM’s native Gujarat.

In fact, the BJP hopes the Kovind outreach will go beyond the limited Kori identity and help the party in other states too. Pai thinks the ongoing churn among the Dalits will benefit the BJP, especially in Gujarat that goes to polls later this year. The Koris who have an SC status in UP, are known as Kolis in Guj­arat and are in the OBC category. Shah wasted no time in claiming the turf in his home-state and presenting Kovind as a Koli. A day after Kovind’s candidature, Shah add­ressed party workers in Saurashtra and said the BJP will win over 150 assembly seats in the state, given the PM’s focus on uplifting the oppressed sections of society.

Dalits of Kovind’s native UP are being fostered into a fresh identity. A new political formation is on the anvil in that state, says an observer.

The Koli community comprises 18 per cent of Gujarat’s population and could be a deciding factor in 18 seats in Saurashtra. Grappling with the erosion of its traditional Patidar vote-base, BJP is making it a point to take Kovind’s nomination to the people. The Gujarat unit of the BJP took pains to highlight his links with the Koli community. Kovind is attached with Gujarat’s Koli Samaj for the past 15 years,” points out the BJP state unit. Ever since he became its president, he continuously worked for the unity, education and betterment of the Kolis, acco­rding to a statement.

Political psychologist-commentator Ashis Nandy believes it is unfair to view Kovind’s candidature only in terms of his Dalit identity. He says Kovind has a very good record and he seems to fulfil all the criteria that the Opposition has been harping on—one who upholds the Cons­titution, respects democratic principles and has secular credentials.

“He is a lawyer and has been a governor; so he knows the Constitution. He was not an intrusive governor by all accounts. Even Nitish, who had expressed reservations when Kovind was appointed the governor of Bihar, learnt to appreciate him because of the support he lent for various state projects,” says Nandy. “Kovind is not an ideologue and has done nothing for anyone to doubt his secular credentials. I do believe he is unlikely to be a disaster as the President.”

According to him, Kovind may be in the same class as late President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. “He is learned and does not have higher political ambitions like, say, Giani Zail Singh. If elected, I am sure, he will prove to be a good President,” says the sociologist. Given the political calculations by the BJP, the government could not have come up with a better candidate. “The Dalits are a divided lot by all accounts and the BJP has a lot to offer,” he adds.

However, Nandy asserts that Kovind’s nomination is not a guarantee that the BJP will get Dalit votes. “To use that party’s own language, in a different context, it is a gesture of appeasement. It may or may not work,” he says.

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