The so-called nationalist TV channels call it a master stroke, a smart move to upstage the Opposition and I call it a desperate attempt: The selection of Ram Nath Kovind as the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) presidential candidate has created a lot of heat in the political sphere. It has become a bit controversial too. A section calls it blatant casteism foisted at the high office; another terms it as an effort to belittle the post of the first citizen.
There is a concern in another section that Modi is doing a Zail Singh, who famously said: “If my leader (Indira Gandhi) ask me to pick up a broom and sweep I will happily do that”.
Ideally, the post of the President should be above politics and the person holding the position should have the stature and understanding to enhance the prestige and the dignity of the Indian Constitution. But if democracy is all about politics among different competing sections and management of votes then why should there be a debate on the constitutional morality of the issue!
So I am not surprised. Neither by the BJP's choice or the choice of the joint opposition.
Meira Kumar is also Dalit. In fact, we should welcome this as this will be the first battle of its kind when both the candidates are from the Dalit community, though whosoever wins, won't be the first Dalit President.
KR Narayanan was the first Dalit President who won the post after defeating Capt Laxmi Sehgal, whose name was pushed forward by the then powerful political block, the Left.
The first of his kind
Narayanan, in my opinion, is the greatest President, even surpassing the great Rajendra Prasad. He held office with a lot of dignity and refused to be the rubber stamp to the political dispensation. But he was also chosen by the Congress to bring back its disappearing Dalit votes.
I don't know if Narayanan's name helped the Congress in the long run or not, but it gave a very positive signal that Dalits were no longer pushovers. And that the Indian democracy, slowly but definitely, was turning the idea of casteism on its head and moving in a direction to course-correct the civilisational injustice inflicted upon a numerically strong section of the society.
It underlined the fact that the Brahmanical social order was breaking and a realisation had dawned upon the powerful hegemonic social groups that they could no longer afford to ill-treat their fellow Indians.
It was a great victory for the Indian Constitution and for democracy.
In that way, I welcome Kovind and Meira Kumar's selection as candidates. It's a reflection of a great social churning and a silken revenge over history.
But even so, it is just slightly more than tokenism. The real change will happen when a Dalit leader will occupy the seat of prime minister, the real seat of power.
But the selection of Kovind itself is not a mean achievement. This also signifies a realisation within the Hindutva fold that their great civilisational project of United 'militant' Hindu will not reach fruition if Dalits are not attracted to RSS's 'diabolical' ideology.
This is also a realisation within the BJP that if Dalits are not associated with the party, their journey for victory in 2019 will be difficult. It is paradoxical.
The Hindutva ideology is anti-Dalit in its form and also in its idea. It is an attempt to re-establish the Brahmanical order which finds solace in 'Manusmriti'. The origin of the Rashtriyay Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is a civilisational reaction of the hegemony groups within the Hindu fold who felt psychologically dominated and suppressed by the Muslim (Mughals) and Christian (British) rulers over centuries. The demolition of Babri Masjid is an obvious reflection of that mind set.
The RSS is of the opinion that Hindus could not withstand the onslaught of these two religions because Hinduism is fragmented into castes; does not portray a Hindu united image and is not militant in its approach.
It fails to realise the fact that absence of equality due to the hierarchical nature of society is the real hurt for the downtrodden. The reality is that even after 70 years of Independence, Dalits are not treated as equals; they are treated as outcastes.
It was for this reason that Baba Saheb Ambedkar had said he was born a Hindu, but he wouldn’t die as one. In his last years, he converted to Buddhism along with lakhs of his followers.
It is a reality that the RSS has not made any attempt since its inception for the upliftment of Dalits.
Fifteen years ago, I remember asking Vishwa Hindu Parishad's (VHP) senior leader, Pravin Togadia, why did the RSS not do this? He was quite candid in his admission. He said it was because the RSS leadership was dominated by the upper caste.
Since then the situation has not improved. But it is also a fact that in the 2014 Parliamentary elections, a section of Dalits did vote for the BJP and Narendra Modi.
A study has shown that in UP, where the BJP got 71 seats, Dalits (other than the dominant Jatavs) too voted for Modi which was one of the main reasons for the demise of the BSP in the state and the spectacular rise of the BJP.
But in the last three years, the BJP has not paid them back. Four incidents are an indicator how they were treated on the ground –
1. The suicide of Hyderabad University student, Rohith Vemula
Rohith was thrown out of his hostel and two Union ministers, prompted by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) were instrumental in doing this along with the vice-chancellor. Ideally, action should have been taken against the perpetrators, but most tragically, the attempt was to prove that Rohith was not a Dalit.
2. In Una, Gujarat, Dalits were brutally beaten on camera by Gau Rakshaks in the presence of police
This was routinely happening in that part of Gujarat, but the administration had been silent. When the media took up the issue and Opposition leaders started visiting Una, the BJP government took note.
But what shook the BJP was the rally organised by Dalits led by a young leader named Jignesh Mewani. Without any political support, Dalits thronged Gandhinagar in lakhs. It was an indication of the militant Dalit assertion.
3. Very recently, in Saharanpur, UP, Dalits were attacked by the upper castes led by the BJP MP
The local administration was helpless and the state government did not move fast enough to protect the victims.
Again, without the backing of any political party, thousands of Dalits organised themselves, came to Delhi and made their presence felt. They demanded justice from the Modi government. Instead, their young leader, Chandrashekhar was hounded and arrested. Yet again, no action was taken against the BJP MP who incited violence.
4. The de-recognition of Ambedkar Periyar study group in IIT Madras
The authorities de-recognised the group for criticising the Modi government on the issue of land acquisition and ban on cow slaughter and Ghar Wapsi. This created a furore across the country and galvanised Dalit students.
If one carefully examines social media debates, a new awakening is taking a concrete shape among Dalits. They are vehemently opposed to the RSS ideology and the patronising attitude of the Modi administration.
There is a strong undercurrent among the community that is waiting for the right opportunity to assert itself. Dalits are angry and desirous to seek revenge. Modi, as well as the BJP, knows that well enough.
Modi also knows that he owes his prime ministership largely to UP voters where Dalits command more than 20% of the total votes. The overwhelming mandate in the Assembly election can be a misnomer.
A repeat in the 2019 Parliamentary elections looks difficult.
Kovind belongs to a community other than the Jatav Community within the Dalit society. Mayawati is a Jatav. The choice of Kovind is an attempt to tell Dalits that the BJP/RSS is ready for a truce and is asking for forgiveness.
But a strong assertion among the Dalits is a pointer that they won't be misled by such tokenism.
They are not here to be appropriated by a volatile ideology but they will demand their pound of flesh- with Kovind or without Kovind.
The writer is a spokesperson for the Aam Aadmi Party.
Edited by Jhinuk Sen