In political and strategic terms, the BJP leadership staged the equivalent of a coup d’état when it nominated Ram Nath Kovind for President. The choice killed three birds with one stone. Bird No 1: The Opposition parties’ unity against the Ruling dispensation. Not only did Bihar’s Nitish Kumar break rank to support the BJP; the usual dissonance between father Mulayam and son Akhilesh Yadav pushed the Samajwadis into yet another imbroglio.
Bird No 2: The Opposition’s chance to field independently a candidate of superior status. Meira Kumar has the right credentials, but her choice essentially means the Opposition imitating the BJP’s tactic of playing the Dalit card. Bird No 3: Presumed Dalit antipathy to the Hindutva camp which is seen as a Pune-Nagpur savarna setup. The party in power is in a position to ensure that the election of the President next month will be a mere formality.
The strategists of the BJP scored grace marks as well by picking a man who seems to carry himself well. We need to remember that there were proposals to nominate the RSS chief himself for the highest constitutional position. That would have sent out the message that hardline Hindutva ideology was taking over the country in unabashed style. Avoiding such an unwise projection of the country’s image, the decision-makers zeroed in on a man whose chief asset is his low profile.
Kovind is a card-carrying BJP man. But as Governor of Bihar he attracted no adverse publicity as, for example, the BJP governors of Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka did. Actually, he remained unknown all these years. We now hear that he has been a lawyer of some quality and has a scholarly bend of mind, unusual by BJP-RSS standards. In a country where small-minded careerists like Zail Singh and inconsequential bystanders like Pratibha Patil brought disrepute to the presidency, Kovind has the potential to uphold its dignity.
The political calculations behind Kovind’s nomination are a different matter, however. It is obvious that his scholarship and non-controversial profile were not the factors that led to his elevation. His caste was. Caste has been a decisive factor in the electoral strategising of all parties across the country. It was especially so in UP where Mayawati built an empire in the name of Dalits despite her service to the community being minimal and self-centred. Kovind, a Kanpur native, will be embraced by UP Dalits, BJP calculates. But Mayawati, significantly, has switched to Meira Kumar.
While the BJP has done a smart job for itself, the larger question remains: On account of electoral compulsions, is India condemned to be nothing more than a sum of its communal parts? Politics and even law and order in many parts of India in recent years have been dominated by caste-based campaigns, often violent, by Thakurs and Dalits, Jats and Gujjars, Patidars and Rajputs and Vanniyars. Is this how our political parties want India’s future to be, or do they have a responsibility to lead the country away from narrow casteism?
This is the first time a presidential nominee has been picked on the basis of his caste identity. K R Narayanan was not fielded because he was a Dalit. It was his background as diplomat, administrator and minister and, above all, his stature as a public figure that made him a candidate for the highest post in the country. And he lived up to the trust the country placed in him.
APJ Abdul Kalam was not nominated because he was a Muslim. Nor was Zakir Husain long before him. In fact those gentlemen were outstanding examples of India’s secular identity. Not once did they conduct themselves or take decisions as Muslims. They were Indian citizens and were recognised as such.
It is true that in those times, too, political parties made their electoral calculations on the basis of religion and caste. Even Marxist EMS Namboodiripad went to the extent of creating a new Muslim-majority district in Kerala to please its constituents.
But the emphasis on religion and caste is now at a higher pitch, the UP state election signalling a climax of that process. Since the BJP’s current strategy is anchored on caste considerations, the role of communal elements in public life will increase.
That Ram Nath Kovind is a worthy candidate is unrelated to the cynical calculations behind his nomination. Principles matter. In the life of a nation, todays are the building blocks of tomorrows. Compromises adopted for momentary victories may well lead to defeats in the long term.