By Sajjan Kumar:
Ram Nath Kovind being named as NDA’s presidential candidate should not be surprising at all, because the speculation that a tribal or Dalit could be their final choice was already doing the rounds in various media reports. Be that as it may, BJP’s final choice needs to analysed at multiple levels – given the man’s socio-political background in the context of the interaction of the subalterns and Hindutva factors, alongside with the ‘inner richness’ that the Dalit discourse is witnessing in contemporary India.
Ram Nath Kovind, who is a Koli Dalit from Uttar Pradesh, is a lawyer by training. He represents the stream of aspirational, non-Jatav Dalit middle classes which were not enamoured and overwhelmed by the anti-Hindutva Ambedkarite outlook in the Hindi heartland during the mid-1980s.
During this time, Kanshi Ram built upon the ‘socio-political capital’ of the All India Backward (SC, ST, OBC) And Minority Communities Employees Federation (BAMCEF) and the Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti (DS4). The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), led by Kanshi Ram, captured the imagination of the Dalits, especially its educated middle class. In the process, they declared and delegitimised any Dalit leader associated with Congress or BJP as ‘chamcha Dalits’.
Secondly, Kovind represents the tenuous outlook of marginal Dalit sub-caste leaders. While desiring the ascendancy of Dalits in public sphere, they are also deeply wary of the insignificance and invisibility of the weaker Dalit groups (under the Dalit discourse), which are exclusively dominated by the Dalit sub-castes which are numerically significant or are relatively better-off.
It is in this context that his political links with the BJP complement seamlessly with his association with the Akhil Bhartiya Koli Samaj, a sub-caste social organisation (founded in 1991) dedicated to the upliftment of Koli Dalits. Interestingly enough, one of the foundational objectives of the Akhil Bhartiya Koli Samaj happens to be the annual celebration of ‘leading figures, saints, emperor-warriors and women-warriors’ from the Koli caste, along with the construction of memorial parks and setting up statues at public squares, with the ‘help of the government’.
This form of history-driven cultural assertion informing the political aspirations of marginalised Dalit sub-caste groups found a willing platform in Hindutva politics, which was more accommodating to their cultural outlook than the available alternatives like Ambedkarites and secular parties.
Incidentally, Ram Nath Kovind’s stint as the president of BJP Dalit Morcha (1998-2002) almost coincided with the tenure of India’s first Dalit President, KR Narayanan (1997-2002). He was also the only BJP leader who appeared as a defence witness in support of Bangaru Laxman in the matter of CBI vs Bangaru Laxman, when he was still the president of BJP Dalit Morcha.
The positive interface of subaltern castes and Hindutva, especially the non-Yadav OBCs in UP, can be traced back since the early 1990s. During this time, the latter not only formed the significant support base of BJP, but also provided firebrand leaders like Kalyan Singh and Vinay Katiyar even during the height of Mandal discourse. However, the shift of a significant section of Dalits towards Hindutva is a late phenomenon, primarily from 2014.
It is noteworthy that the BJP followed a two-track strategy to consolidate the inclusion of Dalits into its fold. The first strategy was to include popular Dalit leaders like Ram Vilas Paswan, Ramdas Athavale, Udit Raj and later, Jitan Ram Manjhi, who followed anti-Hindutva, Ambedkarite socialist politics and were known for spewing venom against RSS and BJP ideologies. However, they too aligned with the BJP on account of its ‘winnability’ factor.
The second strategy that the BJP employed was to silently invest efforts in its own Dalit leaders like Ram Nath Kovind and Vijay Sonkar Shashtri (a Khatik). This was essential because they shared a similar outlook with the RSS and the BJP (having long been associated with the party), and where therefore instrumental in fetching non-Jatav Dalit votes for the BJP. This indicates that while the BJP ‘projected’ the ‘borrowed’ Dalit leaders in the electoral arena, at an organisational level, it relied upon the leaders like Ram Nath Kovind to do the ground work.
Against this backdrop, the catapulting of Ram Nath Kovind from a state governor to NDA’s presidential candidate signifies a new phase in the interplay of subaltern and Hindutva politics. While the Dalit leaders across the ideological spectrum and diverse political background are being accommodated and employed to expand and consolidate the BJP’s social base among the Dalits, the highest post of the Indian Republic is earmarked for the Dalit who not only hails from their own organisational matrix, but also shares its worldview.
Therefore, BJP’s candidate for India’s next President follows the logic of the ‘subalternisation of Hindutva’, at a level never seen before. Ram Nath Kovind is not just an instrumental ally of the BJP (like Udit Raj and others). Rather, he is an integral part of the BJP, and his ascendancy signifies a political act markedly different from those that represent a general subaltern shift to Hindutva.
Besides, he shares the RSS’ outlook towards religious minorities. As a BJP spokesperson, he has, on record, opposed the Rangnath Mishra Commission report which recommended a 10% reservation for Muslims and the extension of ‘Scheduled Caste status for Dalits in all religions’. He has also stated that ‘Islam and Christianity are alien to India’. This accounts for his view that these people should be debarred from availing the Scheduled Caste quota in jobs, legislative bodies and education – despite sharing a common socio-economic background with Hindu Dalits.
Like most discourses, Hindutva and Dalit discourses are not monolithic. Rather, they are full of ‘inner divergences’ and ‘richness’.
One finds both ‘Brahmanical’ and subaltern’ aspects to the Hindutva discourse. While both these streams see Muslims as the dominant ‘other’, their views differ significantly over the question of Hindu self and the modus-operandi to attain it.
In a similar manner, the Dalit discourse is also informed by the various streams signifying ‘inner richness’. These streams share the common concern of Dalit-empowerment, but compete with each other when it comes to finding ways to achieve this. As the recent incidents in Saharanpur reveal, the Dalit discourse is primarily divided into three streams in UP and other states, today:
1. Pro-BSP politics.
2. Autonomous Ambedkarite politics.
3. Pro-BJP politics.
Each of these three streams have resulted from the aspirational Dalit middle class – the sub-sections of which are competing with each other to acquire the hegemonic place in the overall ‘meta-paradigm’ of the Dalit discourse. Furthermore, these three discourses are the outcome of the ‘active agencies’ of the Dalits. To regard one of these discourses as genuine and the others as passive and gullible would be a case of analytical fallacy.
Therefore, the ascendency of the Hindutva discourse (especially its subaltern stream) since Modi’s rise in 2014, and its intense confluence with subalterns (both the OBCs and the Dalits) can be meticulously understood only if one considers the ‘pro-BJP and pro-Hindutva’ stream to be as representative of the Dalit discourse as the ‘autonomous Ambedkarite’ and ‘pro-BSP’ streams.
The old insistence of treating the former as spurious would only be a ‘partial analysis’ (at best) and ‘sectarian’ (at worst). The rise of leaders like Ram Nath Kovind should not merely be brushed aside as an act of tokenism on the part of the BJP and Hindutva outfits. This is because this seemingly symbolic step may well marginalise the other two streams of Dalit discourse, at least in UP, by empowering the ‘pro-BJP’ stream.
It is time that the opposition parties take cognisance of this powerful interplay between the ‘subaltern-Hindutva’ and the ‘pro-Hindutva’ Dalit streams, in order to respond properly, and not impulsively.
In terms of the number game, the NDA’s vote share in the presidential election closing the majority mark. Currently, it stands at 48.64%, just 1.36% short of the 50% mark.
Against this backdrop, the BJP needs the support of only a couple of regional parties, which shouldn’t be a difficult. However, the BJP also seems to be wary of the chief plank that can unite the opposition and regional parties, keeping in mind the ongoing protests by Dalits in different parts of the country. In fact, the Congress and the Left parties were expected to employ this aspect in order to bring together opposition parties under one banner.
By fielding a Dalit candidate, BJP seems to have deprived opposition of its chief plank, which has led to a rift within the opposition ranks. As it is, BJP ally and Lok Janshakti Party leader, Ram Vilas Paswan, has declared that the ones opposing Ram Nath Kovind’s nomination should be considered anti-Dalit. Going by the initial responses, many regional parties seem to have extended their support for the NDA nominee. Barring the Left, Congress and Trinamool Congress, no opposition party has opposed BJP’s nomination.
In fact, Mayavati’s guarded statement that she cannot oppose a Dalit candidate unless the opposition itself fields a more-popular Dalit nominee, speaks volumes about the dilemma that opposition parties are facing. Already, the Telugu Rashtriya Samithi (TRS) and the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) have extended their support to Kovind. Nitish Kumar has personally welcomed his nomination as a presidential candidate.
Against this backdrop, during their meet on June 21, the opposition parties are more likely to attempt to consolidate and ensure the support of the remaining regional parties who may otherwise end up extending their support to BJP’s nominee. Taking a cue from Mayavati’s guarded but conditional statement, it can be reasonably inferred that the opposition may come up with the name of a popular Dalit leader like Meira Kumar (or someone else).
Ram Nath Kovind’s probable election as India’s President would signify the powerful combination of three predominant factors:
1. The intensifying of ‘subaltern Hindutva’.
2. The ascendancy of the ‘pro-BJP, pro-Hindutva’ stream of Dalit discourse.
3. His identity as someone belonging to UP, which is electorally. the most significant state.
How all these factors and streams of discourse will ultimately affect the presidential race, will be interesting for the political observers and the common masses.
The author has a PhD from the Centre for Political Studies, JNU. He is associated with Peoples Pulse, a Hyderabad based research organisation,specialising in political and electoral studies.
A version of the post first appeared here.