Ram Nath Kovind: symbolism and substance

Ram Nath Kovind: symbolism and substance

Ram Nath Kovind, the NDA’s presidential candidate, never won a direct election, having fought twice from cons­tituencies that lie close to his village, Parukhan in rural Kanpur. The first time he lost a Lok Sabha election was in 1991 from Gha­tampur to Keshari Lal of the Janata Dal.

That poll was significant because it propelled the BJP from only eight to 51 seats of the undivided Uttar Pradesh’s 85 Lok Sabha seats on the back of a high-decibel campaign for a Ram temple in Ayodhya. With that, the BJP marked its presence as a dominant force in the state.

The second time Kovind flunked the test was in the 2007 Assembly elections in which the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) trampled its opponents and won with a majority. He was hardly in the contest in the Bhognipur seat where the BSP was pitted directly against the Samajwadi Party.

Yet the BJP has resolved to make a political haul of Kovind’s nomination in the impending polls. Reprising the Narendra Modi chronicle of a tea vendor who dreamt big that was themed in the prelude to the 2014 elections, the BJP similarly accentuated Kovind’s “self-made” story, rooted in poverty, hardship and social discrimination. The Kori sub-caste of Dalits he belongs to, traditionally wove “kora kapda” or coarse cloth but the community fell on bad times with the adoption of mechanised power looms, gave up weaving and took to tilling land.

If the BJP wishes to foster a larger social agenda of winning over the less empowered Dalits of the Hindi heartland who have been left out in the joust for power by the better off Jatavs, Kovind is the perfect symbol.

The Koris form just 1.1% (22.93 lakh, according to the 2011 census) of Uttar Pradesh’s SC population of which the Jatavs constitute 54.23% and the Pasis 15.77%. The larger message for the Dalits in Kovind’s candidacy was that those left out of the power loop by the BSP’s alleged pro-Jatav policies and politics need not despair because the BJP has space for them.

Kovind was among the Dalits who was attracted to the BJP once it enlarged its footprints  in Uttar Pradesh. The others were Sangh Priya Gautam and Buddh Priya Maurya, who began their careers in the Republican Party of India, saw it was without a future in north India and looked for options. Maurya went to the Congress but later came to the BJP.

Kovind, Gautam and Maurya did not go to the BSP because they would be expected to genuflect before its leaders, Kanshi Ram and Mayawati. All three of them fancied themselves as doyens of Dalit politics who could not be expected to play second fiddle to a regional satrap. Eventually, Kovind, the least aggressive and soft-spoken of the trio, survived in the BJP, after enduring his share of ups and downs.

The BJP has envisaged a role for Kovind that transcended Uttar Pradesh. The party encashed on his association with the Kolis of Gujarat, although the Koris and Kolis have nothing in common.

The Kolis are classified among the other backward classes in Gujarat and have traditionally fished for a living. Yet, hours after Kovind’s nomination was announced on June 19, the Gujarat BJP put out a statement expressing the Koli community’s happiness with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The communiqué let it be known that as the leader of the Kolis, Kovind  had worked for their education and betterment.

Then the penny dropped. The statement said the Kolis constituted “over 20%” of Saurashtra’s population, a claim that acquires a political context because Gujarat votes in November this year. Obviously, once in office, Kovind cannot campaign for the BJP.

Patel anger

However, the signs are that the party will hammer his ascendancy to presidency to the last, hoping that the votes of the Kolis and the other backward castes in the Saura­shtra region that has 58 of the 182 Assembly seats will be a sheath armour against the threatened opposition from the Patidars or Patels who are upset with the BJP for not granting them reservation in jobs and education. That appears to be the BJP’s target.

Symbolism, however potent, does not always translate into substantial gains. While Kovind’s association with Gujarat’s Kolis is a matter of record, he is too distant a figure for the community to identify itself with. Caste allegiances are shaped by local factors and caste votes are swayed by local leaders, mostly from the panchayats and municipal councils as politics gets increasingly polarised. 

While Kovind holds out the promise of hope for Gujarat’s upwardly mobile youths, they would relate intrinsically to a Sunder Pichai or closer home to a Vijay Shekhar Sharma of Paytm because they know that posts like those of the President depend largely on the patronage bestowed by one’s political masters and not necessarily on the strength of a person’s merits and worth.  Kovind’s choice might be a double-edged sword for the BJP.

However, it is not as though the BJP’s symbols have not yielded tangibles in the past. In 1991, Kalyan Singh was anointed as the Uttar Pradesh chief minister because he was from an influential backward caste and the BJP was keen to neutralise the effects of Mandal politics.

Singh’s anointment paid off richly in several elections thereafter because it helped coalesce several backward castes around the BJP. Modi’s projection had the same far-reaching impact in knitting together the backward castes and even Dalits in the heartland.

In 2002, when then prime minister A B Vajpayee picked A P J Abdul Kalam as the NDA’s presidential nominee, he had hoped to live down the flak that was heaped on him for not containing the Gujarat violence in 2002. The move did not find traction with the Muslims.

On the contrary, many of them remember Kalam for one act: unveiling the portrait of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar in Parliam­ent’s Central Hall that Kalam’s predecessor K R Narayanan had pointedly refused to.

(The writer is a senior journalist based in New Delhi)

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