The ideal saffron soldier

Amulya Ganguli

The standard explanation for the BJP’s choice of the virtually unknown Ramnath Kovind for the President’s post – a rerun of the 2007 “Pratibha who?” episode relating to Pratibha Patil – is his Dalit background.
It is believed that the selection of a Dalit for the highest constitutional position in the country will help to bridge the gulf that has developed between the BJP and the community ever since the bright young scholar Rohith Vemula’s suicide in Hyderabad central university following his confrontation with the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the increasingly aggressive student wing of the saffron brotherhood.
The recent violent stand-off between the Dalits and Rajputs in Saharanpur, U.P., and the earlier lynching of four Dalits who were skinning a dead cow in Una, Gujarat, have also alienated the community from the BJP. 
It cannot be said for certain whether the tokenism of a Dalit President will lead to a dramatic transformation of the present fraught relations between the Dalits and the BJP. If such gestures had worked, then the presence of Dalits like Ramvilas Paswan, Thawar Chand Gehlot and Ramdas Athawale in Narendra Modi’s ministry would have had a soothing effect on Dalit sensitivities.
If it hasn’t, the reason is that the BJP has not been able to shed its image of being a Brahmin-Bania party, made worse in recent times by its palpable hauteur. Kovind’s elevation, therefore, may well turn out to be a futile endeavour in trying to win the hearts and minds of the Dalits.
However, he will be useful in other respects. As a moderate, he will be in tune with Modi’s sab ka saath, sab ka vikas pitch unlike, say, the more hawkish Tripura governor, Tathagata Roy of the BJP, who said that those who attended Yakub Memon’s funeral should be kept under surveillance as they were potential terrorists and reminded everyone who cared to listen about Shyama Prasad Mookerjee prognostications about a Hindu-Muslim civil war.
Moreover, Kovind is unlikely to act as assertively as another President chosen by the BJP, viz. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, did as when he sent the Office of Profit Bill back to the cabinet. Kovind’s low key persona will also not upset the balance in the government of “two and a half men”, as the disgruntled former BJP minister, Arun Shourie, described the present dispensation.
However, Shourie may have exaggerated the numbers running the government, for it is really a one-man show where the other one and half men – presumably Amit Shah and/or Arun Jaitley or Rajnath Singh – are not of much account. In an arrangement such as this, the unassuming Kovind will fit in perfectly.
It is not impossible that the choice of the modest lawyer is the result of the lesson which Modi learnt from the nomination of the far more pushy Yogi Adityanath as the U.P. chief minister. It is not that Yogi has done anything untoward. In fact, he has been saying and doing the right things by reining in the gharwapsi and love jehad brigades and telling the gaurakshaks and the anti-Romeo squads not to take the law into their own hands. Even then, he remains a polarizing figure because of what he said and did in the past.
Kovind’s past, in contrast, is nondescript, which is why he does not seem to have any critics even among the BJP’s political opponents. The Bihar chief minister, Nitish Kumar, had no hesitation, therefore, in endorsing his candidature, evidently because he had no run-ins with the former governor as, for instance, the Puducherry chief minister, V. Narayanswami, is having with the Union territory’s lieutenant-governor, KiranBedi, who was called a thanedar by her critics at the time of the Delhi elections.
At the same time, since Kovind’s RSS credentials are foolproof, his ascent marks another step forward in the Hindutva lobby’s conquest of the commanding heights of the Indian polity. The BJP’s parliamentary success was followed by the expected appointment of saffron apparatchiki in academic institutions such as the Indian Council of Historical Research and the Indian Council of Social Science Research. Now, the capture of the palace on Raisina hill can well be regarded as the party’s crowning glory.
The manner of Kovind’s selection was a reminder of Modi’s penchant for springing surprises on an unwary public as demonetization and the choice of Yogi Adityanath showed. At the same time, it was less than ethical for the BJP to enact the charade of consulting the opposition parties on the presidential candidature in the “true spirit of democracy”, as Venkaiah Naidu, who was one of the interlocutors, said. Since the party – or, rather, Modi – must have decided on Kovind some time ago, there was no need for the pretence of consultations.
In any event, what Kovind’s selection confirms is that caste is becoming a major factor in choosing the President, dispensing with the concept of an eminent, non-political person become the head of state. That criterion would have been fulfilled if M.S. Swaminathan, the father of the Green Revolution, was chosen, as the Shiv Sena suggested. (IPA)

Wednesday, 28 June, 2017