RAM Nath Kovind’s candidature for the presidential election should not be a surprise as speculation about a tribal or Dalit being the NDA’s choice had been rife for weeks. All the same, the BJP’s final choice demands a multi-layered analysis given the man’s socio-political background and in the context of the interplay of subaltern and Hindutva concerns alongside the inner-richness of the Dalit discourse we are witnessing in contemporary India.
Kovind’s socio-political background
Ram Nath Kovind is a Koli Dalit from UP and a lawyer by training. He signifies the aspirational non-Jatav Dalit middle class that was not too enamoured nor overwhelmed by the anti-Hindutva Ambedkarite outlook seen in the Hindi heartland in the mid-1980s.
This was when Kanshi Ram’s BSP captured the imagination of the Dalits, especially the educated middle class section among them, thereby declaring and delegitimizing any Dalit leader associated with the Congress or BJP as ‘Chamcha-Dalits’.
Secondly, Kovind represents the tenuous outlook nurtured by marginal Dalit sub-caste leaders. While desiring the ascendancy of Dalits in the public sphere, they tend to be deeply aware of the insignificance and invisibility of the weaker caste groups within the Dalit discourse which is exclusively dominated by numerically significant and relatively better-off castes.
It is in this context that Kovind’s political association with the BJP gets complemented seamlessly by his association with the Akhil Bhartiya Koli Samaj, a social organization of the Koli sub-caste that was founded in 1991. Interestingly, one of the foundational objectives of the Koli Samaj happens to be the annual celebration of ‘leading figures, saints, emperor-warriors and women-warriors’ hailing from the Koli caste along with building memorial parks and statues at public squares with the ‘help of the government’.
The past-driven cultural assertion informing the political aspirations of marginalized Dalit sub-caste groups was given a platform by “nationalist” forces which were more accommodative of it than the available alternatives like Ambedkarites and secular parties.
Subalterns and Hindutva
The positive interface of Hindutva and subaltern castes, especially the non-Yadav OBCs in UP, could be traced to the early 1990s, when the latter not only formed the significant support base of the BJP, but also provided firebrand leadership like Kalyan Singh and Vinay Katiyar even during the height of the Mandal discourse. But the shift of a significant section of Dalits to the BJP is a late phenomenon, primarily since 2014.
It is noteworthy that the BJP followed a two-track strategy of consolidating this Dalit shift to its fold: one, it accommodated popular Dalit leaders like Ram Vilas Paswan, Ramdas Athavale, Udit Raj and Jitan Ram Manjhi, who arose from anti-Hindutva Ambedkarite or socialist politics known for pouring venom against the ideology of the RSS and BJP, but became aligned with the BJP on account of its winnability factor; and two, it silently invested its own Dalit leaders, such as Ram Nath Kovind and Vijay Sonkar Shashtri (a Khatik), who share the outlook of the RSS and BJP and had long associations with it.
This dual strategy worked to fetch non-Jatav Dalit votes to the BJP’s fold in significant numbers. This indicates that while the BJP largely projected the borrowed Dalit leaders in the electoral arena, at the organizational level, it relied upon leaders like Ram Nath Kovind to do the ground work.
Against this backdrop, the catapulting of Kovind from state governor to presidential candidate signifies a new phase in the interplay of subaltern and Hindutva wherein Dalit leaders from across the ideological spectrum and diverse political backgrounds would be accommodated and employed to expand and consolidate the BJP’s social base among the Dalits.
Therefore, the BJP’s choice of Kovind follows the logic of subalternisation of Hindutva, albeit at a level hitherto not seen. Ram Nath Kovind is not merely an instrumental ally of the BJP like Udit Raj and others but rather an integral one, and his ascendency signifies a political act markedly different from that of the general subaltern shift to pro-BJP forces. Kovind shares the RSS outlook towards religious minorities and has on record - when he was the BJP spokesperson - opposed the Rangnath Mishra Commission report recommending 10 per cent reservation for Muslims and extension of Scheduled Caste status to Dalits in all religions and stated that ‘Islam and Christianity are alien to India,’ making them ineligible from availing Scheduled Caste quota in jobs, legislative bodies and education, despite sharing the socio-economic background with Hindu Dalits.
Inner-richness in Dalit discourse
Like all discourses, the Hindutva and Dalit discourses are not monolithic but full of inner divergences and richness. As one finds, both Brahmanical as well as subaltern streams in the Hindutva discourse, who see the Muslims as the dominant Other but differ significantly over the question of the Hindu self and the modus operandi to attain the same. The Dalit discourse too is informed by various streams, signifying an inner richness that shares the common concern of Dalit empowerment but also competes with each other in achieving the same.
As the Saharanpur violence recently indicated, the Dalit discourse at present is primarily divided into three streams in UP and other states: a) pro-BSP politics, b) autonomous Ambedkarite politics, and c) pro-BJP politics. Each one of the three streams is an outcome of the aspirational middle class of Dalits who are competing with each other to acquire a hegemonic place in the overall meta-paradigm of the Dalit-discourse.
Secondly, all the three discourses are the outcomes of the ‘active agencies’ of the Dalits and to regard one as genuine and others as passive and gullible would be a case of analytical fallacy.
The ascendency of the nationalist discourse, especially its subaltern stream since the advent of Narendra Modi in 2014, and its intense confluence with subalterns, both OBC and Dalit, could be meticulously understood only by treating the ‘pro-BJP Dalit stream as being representative of the Dalit discourse as the autonomous Ambedkarite and pro-BSP streams.
The old insistence of treating the former as spurious would be a partial analysis at best and sectarian at worst. The ascendency of leaders like Ram Nath Kovind cannot be brushed aside as tokenism on the part of the BJP. The seemingly symbolic step has the potential to marginalize the other two streams of Dalit discourse, at least in UP and empower the pro-BJP stream. The opposition parties would do themselves no good by reacting impulsively without taking cognizance of this powerful interplay of the pro-Hindutva-Dalit streams.
In picking Kovind, BJP seems to be mindful of the chief plank that could have united the opposition and regional parties, given the series of protests by Dalits in different parts of the country. Congress and Left parties were expected to employ this aspect to attempt to bring together opposition parties under one banner. By fielding a Dalit, the BJP, at least for now, seems to have deprived the opposition of its chief plank. Already, Lok Janshakti Party leader Ram Vilas Paswan has declared that those opposing Kovind would be considered anti-Dalit. Barring the Left, Trinamool Congress and Congress, no opposition party has opposed the BJP’s candidate. In fact, Mayawati’s guarded statement that she cannot oppose a Dalit candidate unless opposition comes up with its own more popular Dalit nominee speaks volumes about the dilemma that opposition parties are finding themselves in.
Ram Nath Kovind’s proable ascension to Raisina Hill signifies the powerful combination of three preponderant factors: the ‘intensifying of subaltern Hindutva’ ‘pro-BJP and pro-Hindutva Dalit streams’ besides his hailing from Uttar Pradesh --- electorally the most significant state. How all this will impinge upon the prospects of the BJP as well as the opposition in the long run would be interesting to watch.
(Sajjan Kumar is a Ph.D from the Centre for Political Studies. He is associated with People’s Pulse, a Hyderabad-based research organisation, specializing in political and electoral studies)