POLITICS

BJP's Choice Of 'Dalit Leader' Ram Nath Kovind As President Shows We Can Never Be Free Of Identity Politics

It is sad when the highest office in the land becomes entirely reduced to identity politics power play.

20/06/2017 3:14 PM IST | Updated 20/06/2017 3:33 PM IST
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Bihar Governor Ram Nath Kovind.

"How many of you logged onto Wikipedia today? I did. #RamNathKovind".

Trinamool leader Derek O'Brien's candid tweet probably summed up succinctly what most of us were thinking when the BJP announced their nominee for the next President of India.

Ram Nath Kovind is currently the governor of Bihar. More importantly, he was the head of the BJP's Dalit Morcha. The BJP's move in nominating a Dalit to the presidency is being hailed as a "masterstroke".

But it also reveals how deeply we are entrenched in identity politics even by those parties that decry the identity politics of other parties as pandering.

Kovind has been, according to all reports, an impeccable Governor, a by-the-books man, fair and punctilious, a politician who shuns the limelight and avoids controversy. He has signed every bill the Nitish Kumar government sent him without any fuss. His biggest controversy in his role as Governor was apparently making young Tej Pratap Yadav take his oath twice after he mispronounced one word.

But for the BJP, at least according to media consensus, his main USP is that he is Dalit. As JP Yadav reports in The Telegraph, the BJP is "playing the Dalit card on the Opposition and seeking to send a message to the community within which resentment is said to be building against the party."

What does it say about the state of our politics that the elevation of a Ram Nath Kovind is expected to wipe away the scars left by the caste clashes in Saharanpur, Rohith Vemula's suicide and the public flogging of the Dalit youths in Una?

Is this not pandering as well, the politics of symbolism trumping the reality on the ground? It is not that Kovind has been particularly outspoken on any of these issues in recent years. He is a good party man and carefully keeps on the right side of the party line which is his right. When Amit Shah announced his name, he stressed on his "poor and Dalit" origins.

He may have worked for the upliftment of the poor and the Dalit as Narendra Modi once said but to expect that the "poor and Dalit" will forgive and forget Una and Saharanpur just because one of their own, especially one few of them knew much about before today, makes it to Rashtrapati Bhavan assumes that our electorate is gullible and easily distracted by shiny baubles.

What does it say about the state of our politics that the elevation of a Ram Nath Kovind is expected to wipe away the scars left by the caste clashes in Saharanpur, Rohith Vemula's suicide and the public flogging of the Dalit youths in Una?

Kovind is obviously one piece in a larger BJP strategy to woo Dalits and bring them under one greater Hindu umbrella. But leaving aside electoral politics it is sad when the highest office in the land becomes entirely reduced to identity politics power play.

This is not just about the BJP.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Activists of various organizations participate in a candlelight march to observe Rohith Vemula's first death anniversary at Jantar Mantar.

The Opposition's reaction to the announcement of Kovind is also based on that one single issue of identity. Lok Janshakti Party chief Ram Vilas Paswan essentially spelled it out for the Opposition when he said, "If they don't support, it would mean they are anti-dalits."

As Sanjay Singh writes in Firstpost-- "It would be difficult for Sonia as the president of the Congress party to oppose the candidature of a Dalit." He reasons that Lalu Prasad Yadav's RJD will find itself in the same bind. As for Mayawati, "can she afford to oppose a Dalit, that too someone from UP, to occupy the highest constitutional post?" The Samajwadi Party will hesitate about opposing someone from the home state. According to media reports, the Opposition is scrambling to come up with their own Dalit nominee to counter the NDA's Dalit nominee thus reinforcing the vicious circle of identity politics of the presidential race.

Getty Images
Dr Rajendra Prasad (1884 - 1964), President of India (left) with the former Governor-General Chakravarthi Rajagopalachari (1878 - 1972). (Photo by FPG/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

In a country as diverse as India we can never quite be free of identity politics. Even the very first presidential election had its share. Jawaharlal Nehru really wanted C Rajagopalachari, the last governor-general as the first president. He did not care much for Rajendra Prasad who he thought of as overtly religious and who even wanted to change the date of Republic Day for astrological reasons.

But much of the Congress Party was north Indian dominated and they preferred Rajendra Prasad and Nehru had to give way. They also were concerned about Rajagopalachari's non-participation in the Quit India movement and his calls for accommodation with the Muslim League. But at least at that time there was a narrative beyond identity politics about the particular talents and shortcomings of the two men. Both were lawyers. Rajendra Prasad had presided over the Constituent Assembly.

Rajagopalachari, the Governor-General was an urbane scholar, once described as the "wisest man in India". Nehru opposed the elevation of Rajendra Prasad but he did write in a letter to Prasad in 1949:

It would be an unseemly sight for the country and for the Congress for two of our most eminent leaders to contest against each other... What then can we do? It is patent that there are only two persons who might be chosen as President of the Republic – yourself and Rajaji...

Their CV went well beyond their caste, religion or birthplace. Now it seems the CV boils down to caste, religion and birthplace. And party loyalty. Everything else is secondary.

In a country as diverse as India we can never quite be free of identity politics.

It is clear from the analysis of this nomination, that even the presidential election is just another gambit in Lok Sabha electoral politics. The gradual degeneration in the criteria for president was underway for a long time. It's worth remembering Rajagopalachari who was Nehru's nominee was also at odds with the Congress party on many issues, eventually formed the Swatantra Party and was a critic of the license raj state economy.

Photodivision
The Hon'ble Dr. Rajendra Prasad.

But quickly, the Indian president needed to be someone more pliable and loyalist. Indira Gandhi took India down that road when she had to counter the politics of the Congress' old Syndicate who wanted their own man as president and especially when she conferred the presidency on Giani Zail Singh, the man who was famously happy to sweep the room if she asked him to though he later locked horns with her son. When she signed the Emergency, she had an accommodating president in Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed who did what was needed without asking for Cabinet approval.

This does not mean that Kovind might not make for an excellent President. But it does show how we are trapped in identity politics because we are able to view this man, a lawyer, through no lens other than his Dalit identity. That's our failing, not his.

The soft spoken Kovind could surprise us as President Kovind. It's just sad that the analysis in all the media today seems to suggest he has been chosen not because he is a good candidate for President of India who happens to be Dalit but rather he is a Dalit who happens to be a good candidate for the President of India.

It's a subtle distinction but an important one. We should just pause and reflect on where we are as a nation when the person who would be the next President of India, the highest office in the land, is being summed up in the media as a "Dalit card".

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