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Ram Nath Kovind as next President of India: Not Just a Dalit Card

By Smita Mishra

The most common image of Ram Nath Kovind that I have in my mind is of an unusually quiet, slightly smiling political worker who would keep himself occupied in his work without getting much bothered by the goings-on at 11 Ashok Road, the BJP headquarters.

Kovind never quite became the face of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the manner that spokespersons tend to become these days. Even on being appointed national spokespersons, he stuck to his profile as the essential organizational man quietly working without attracting publicity for his work.

Ram Nath Kovind as next President of India: Not Just a Dalit Card

Unlike the garrulous, shouting spokespersons, one had to spare time to know the thoughts of Ram Nath Kovind on any burning topic. And that's how he became the 'go to' person for dozens of journalists writing on the BJP on a regular basis.

There would be days when a reporter knew the details of a certain issue but found himself or herself ill-equipped to write anything due to lack of a perspective or background. That's when one looked for Ram Nath Kovind, either in the SC Morcha room or one of the quieter corners of the complex to gain the correct 'insight'.

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His knowledge of the party constitution, of the Indian constitution, history of the Dalit struggle and the deprived sections of the Indian electorate often gave an insight which a 'typical' spokesperson could not. Sometimes, just talking to him made a complex issue fall into place. Perhaps, that's the reason why he addressed just a couple of briefings as national spokesperson. He always preferred more focused organisational work. Even during his two stints in the Rajya Sabha, one never really saw him join the shouting brigade.

Perhaps that is the reason why journalists familiar with writing on the BJP-RSS were shocked to see some celebrated editors and even senior politicians mock at the 'unknown' status of Kovind soon after BJP president Amit Shah announced his name.

Reporters have already written how his humble background was never an impediment in devoting time and resources for helping out those really in need of social upliftment. His initiative to get schools built because children in the village had to trudge a dozen kilometers for school, his decision to give up the little bit of ancestral property they had to build a 'community centre' are moves which denote that he was working for 'empowerment' of the poor and the needy much before this word became fashionable in power circles.

To my mind, the very fact that he declined to join the central services after qualifying the rigorous tests and opting to be a political worker is enough indication of how Kovind thinks. How many young men from well-to-do, resourceful families would opt out after selection in the 'allied' services, leave alone a young man from a poor, Dalit, peasant family?

Now that the Bihar Governor is all set to occupy the biggest house on Raisina Hills it may be relevant to point out that the decision to choose him as the candidate does not end with his being a Dalit. It means that in the Modi-Shah regime the question of empowerment would be wedded with the 'nationalist' ideology. It also means that empowerment in this case does not exactly mean the strident, overtly aggressive posture of the Ambedkarites but a more inclusive, softer movement that gels with the 'cultural nationalism' of the RSS ideology.

Narendra Modi (whose election campaign in 2014 focussed on both his OBC background as well as the 'Chaiwala') is actually the more popular among the 'savarnas' of the Hindi heartland than many leaders in the last many decades. Selection of Kovind must be viewed in the same mould. That is why, the RSS movement to empower the Dalits is called Samajik Samrasta, to denote that it is anti-none.

With a Chaiwala as Prime Minister and a Gareeb Kisan ka Beta as President, Modi can make up for the losses the BJP might incur in states like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhatisgarh and Gujarat where the party has reached a saturation point. As for Uttar Pradesh, the state can now boast of both the PM and the President. Therefore, it may be myopic to judge this move just as a non-Jatav stroke.

The only issue left to address now could be that of moving beyon the North to more uncharted territories. Perhaps the choice of the Vice President would lift the veil on that. Who knows?

(Smita Mishra, Advisor, Prasar Bharati)

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