While his selection as Bihar’s governor may have been a surprise, his recent nomination for the presidential post by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has come as an even bigger surprise. By naming Ram Nath Kovind as its pick, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has played a big gamble.
Undeniably, this is a political masterstroke. Not only has it landed the opposition into an uncomfortable predicament, it also attempts to consolidate Modi’s ‘pro-poor’ and ‘pro-Dalit’ image.
Facing major setbacks in some of the recent assembly polls, it would not not be a stretch to guess that the BJP may well face a united opposition in the 2019 polls. However, by placing its bet on Kovind, the BJP has attempted to dent this unity.
After the announcement, Amit Shah keenly highlighted Kovind’s poor and Dalit background. And this is the main reason why the opposition can become divided. As it stands, the Telengana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) and the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) have already extended their support for Kovind’s candidature.
If elected, Kovind will be India’s second Dalit President – after KR Narayanan. This is significant because he hails from Uttar Pradesh (UP). Besides, he is currently serving as Bihar’s governor. Both these states contribute 120 seats (UP has 80 seats, while Bihar has 40) to the Lok Sabha. Therefore, these seats are very crucial for the saffron party, if it wants to remain in power even after the 2019 polls.
Moreover, this will create problems for regional players like the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Janata Dal (United) (JDU) – all of whom thrive on caste politics. Any attempt by these parties to challenge Kovind’s candidature can be interpreted and portrayed by the BJP as an ‘anti-Dalit’ and ‘anti-poor’ move.
The second target here is to push Modi’s ‘pro-Dalit’ and ‘pro-poor’ image. During the past three years of his tenure, Modi has faced a number of situations and controversies which have cast doubt on his party’s endeavours to transform itself from being identified primarily as a ‘baniya-Thakur’ party to one that is ‘pro-Dalit’. Rohith Vemula’s suicide, the Una incident and the recent Dalit-Thakur clashes in Saharanpur – the BJP has come under fire too many times.
However, the party has also been successful in crafting and portraying disruptive decisions (like demonetisation) as ‘pro-poor’ measures. The Prime Minister (PM) himself has tried to woo Dalits several times, by leveraging the significance of BR Ambedkar. Hence, Kovind’s selection is just another effort to project Modi as a ‘messiah’ of the poor and the Dalits.
Another major significance of Kovind’s selection is his agrarian background. In his tweets, The PM was quick to point out that Kovind is a ‘farmer’s son’ and that he ‘comes from a humble background’. This is crucial, because the decision comes in the background of ongoing agrarian crises and farmer protests. The move will help the party to balance the negative publicity it has been getting recently.
Consequently, chances of Kovind’s becoming the country’s next President are very high. However, the excessive emphasis on his caste and his background, instead of the other valuable and relevant credentials he possesses, only highlights the mindsets of the political parties. After his election as a President, Ram Nath Kovind’s major challenge would be to move beyond the caste tag (and associated concerns) and become a true protector of the Indian Constitution.