The BJP has nominated current Bihar Governor Ram Nath Govind, a 71 year-old Dalit leader from Uttar Pradesh, as the Presidential candidate. After accusations of being pro-upper caste, is the Bharatiya Janata Party with its nomination of a Dalit leader trying to assuage critics? Trained as a lawyer, Kovind has in the past headed the Dalit cell of the party. Belonging to Kanpur Dehat district’s Koli community of Dalits he is known to keep a low profile and has also served as OSD to Morarji Desai. However, recognition as one of the liberal and scholarly faces of the BJP has not helped him climb the party hierarchy. His nomination has flummoxed opposition parties which have accused the BJP of being anti-Dalit.
Prime Minister Modi had last August in Hyderabad’s Lal Bahadur Stadium made an impassioned speech in the wake of violence against Dalits. The speech was seen by many as a strange offense as the attackers of Dalits were members of the extended Sangh Parivar and not opponents. The BJP-Dalit divide seemed to come to fore in 2016 when Hyderabad Scholar Rohith Vemula committed suicide. His caste certificates showed him to be a Dalit. BJP’s handling of the entire situation was criticized by parties and people across the country. The news made headlines worldwide and opposition jumped the bandwagon to ride the wave of anti-BJP protests. It is believed the BJP’s nomination of Kovind is an attempt by the party to shed its anti-Dalit image.
There are several who are critical of BJP’s nomination of Kovind. Human Rights Activist VS Krishna says the move is a “desperate” attempt by BJP to try to appropriate the Ambedkar legacy. He doubts that those on the forefront of Dalit struggles will be impressed by such “symbolism.” While others like Kancha Ilaiah, Dalit rights activist have received the news with mixed responses. Says the Dalit activist that even if the move is a symbolic one, he believes that a Dalit President will help ease the current friction in the country. He says that being a Dalit himself, Kovind will be under pressure to act on violence against Dalits.
We can hope that having a Dalit President will improve the current state of Dalits and the seeming intolerance towards them in the country. But failing to note the political undertones leading to this decision will be myopic indeed.