Ram Nath Kovind - a Dalit - is the 14th President of India and his election has several political connotations. While it signals a paradigm shift in the BJP-RSS ideology, it also points to the ‘seriousness’ with which the saffron party is approaching all upcoming assembly elections in the run up to the General Election in 2019.
Before finally jumping into the 2019 Lok Sabha battle, the Narendra Modi-powered BJP wants to continue its winning streak in states like Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh where assembly elections are due later this year, and in Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Rajasthan and Tripura, which will go to polls in 2018.
Clearly, for the BJP to expand its footprints across the length and breadth of the nation, it is important that it gets support from the Dalits, the MahaDalits (the most backward and the under-privileged sections of the country) besides its traditional vote bank.
In order to achieve this, the BJP, which has traditionally been known as a party of Brahmins, Baniyas, upper and middle caste Hindus, needs an image make-over.
Probably, that’s the reason why the BJP has now begun to expand its outreach among the Dalits, Mahadalits and tribals.
This could also be understood from the fact that in an electorally crucial state like Uttar Pradesh, the Dalit and the Muslim factor plays a pivotal role, and together, the two communities account for nearly 38.5 percent of the state’s total population.
So, for Narendra Modi to win a second term in 2019, the support of Dalits to BJP would be crucial in a big state like Uttar Pradesh, where it won 71 of the 80 seats in 2014.
It is in this context the decision to pick a ‘Dalit’ - Ram Nath Kovind - as the NDA’s presidential candidate by the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo can be seen as a political masterstroke by the saffron brigade.
Kovind’s election and M Venkaiah Naidu’s recent nomination for the vice-presidential election is part of BJP’s larger game plan for its “Mission 2019”.
Aware of the symbolism that holds high value in a huge democracy like India, the Modi-Shah combine is right in putting its bet on Kovind, whose ascension to the Rashtrapati Bhavan will certainly sway Dalit masses in BJP’s favour.
However, it would be incorrect to say that Kovind’s ‘Dalit’ credentials could have been the only reason why he was picked up by Modi, surpassing several big names like Sushma Swaraj, MM Joshi etc.
Kovind’s past association with the “Sangh Parivar”, his humble beginning from the Kanpur Dehat, his birth in the non-Jatav community, his reputation as a successful lawyer, his standing as an astute politician could have all worked in his favour.
Another interesting aspect of Kovind's election as President is the growing engagement of the RSS with Dalits and the shifting power balance within the party's rank. In the late 1980s and the 1990s, the Ram Temple movement helped the BJP to consolidate its Hindu vote bank across India, especially in the Hindi speaking belt.
However, a need was felt to broaden the BJP’s support base among the Dalits and the MahaDalits, other than the OBCs, which have somewhat tilted towards the saffron party.
It was only since Modi came to power in 2014, the party began to make a concerted effort to reach out to the Dalits and MahaDalits.
Modi, who too comes from the OBC community, has been wooing the Dalits and championing their causes whenever an opportunity came. His late but strict warning to the cow vigilantes in the wake of a spate of mob lynching incidents is a firm pointer to the fact that BJP is cosying up to Dalits.
As a result, the ‘Dalits’ are now increasingly seeing him as their well-wisher and a crusader for their rights and causes.
By sending Kovind to the Rashtrapati Bhavan, especially in the context of a violent clash between the Dalits and Thakurs in UP’s Saharanpur, the BJP has sought to project itself as a pro-Dalit, pro-poor party. In the broader context, the election of Kovind also takes forward BJP’s formula of “social justice.”
Through Kovind, who has vowed to enter the palatial Rashtrapati Bhavan as the voice for the poor and downtrodden, BJP has also made a big dent in BSP chief Mayawati’s Dalit vote bank.
Mayawati was clearly aware of the political consequences of opposing Kovind’s candidature and that's why her party welcomed the election of a Dalit as the 14th President of India.
However, deep inside her heart she is utterly frustrated and knows that her support base is fast eroding due to BJP's Dalit outreach. Her recent theatrics of resignation from Rajya Sabha only adds to her growing frustration.
Amid murmurs of Congress, Samajwadi Party and the BSP coming together in the 2019 polls, the BJP has already started throwing up Dalit faces and emblems in the war of symbolism and tokenism as it knows that their support is critical for Modi to retain UP and as a result power at the Centre.
Only time will tell, whether BJP’s “Project Dalit” will yield favourable results for the party in 2019 Lok Sabha elections or not.