A Dalit President!

Raman Swamy

There is a school of thought that by selecting Meira Kumar as the Opposition candidate for President the Congress and other so-called secular parties may have missed a trick.

Setting up a Dalit versus Dalit contest for the highest Constitutional post in the land has given the Sangh Parivar good reason to heave a huge sigh of relief.

The announcement that a Ramnath Kovind had been chosen by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was made on June 19. Meira Kumar's name was finalised on June 22. The intervening three days were a period when a section of old-school thinkers in the RSS and some of its front organisations were baffled and even somewhat vexed.

Doubts were privately expressed about the wisdom of projecting a Dalit as president. To some this seemed to be a political decision that runs counter to the teachings of patriarchs like Guru Golwalkar. However, this is hotly disputed by the pragmatists currently at the helm of the BJP who assert that the views expressed in Guruji's 'Bunch of Thoughts' are being misinterpreted by those with only superficial understanding of Manusmriti or those are pathologically opposed to Hindutva.

The political logic behind installing a Dalit President at this juncture, say BJP strategists, is to instil a sense of belonging to the Dalit community at large and to send the signal that today's RSS-BJP leadership considers them as part of the Hindu fraternity.

In the context of the recent history of Dalit unrest and uprisings, in Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere, this message of inclusiveness is fraught with uncertainties. The Sangh leaders are aware of the Dalit population in the country is deeply fragmented and an attempt to entice all the Scheduled Castes into the Hindu fold—or more precisely into Hindutva vote-bank politics—is little more than a symbolic gesture.

Whereas the BJP political leaders felt it was a gamble worth taking, there were some who felt it could backfire—especially if the Opposition parties had fielded a candidate belonging to the upper castes, perhaps a Brahmin with scholarly or spiritual credentials.

Or, for the sake of hypothetical argument, if the Congress and its allies had looked for and identified a broad-minded and well-regarded spiritual leader, whether robed in saffron or not, and fielded such a personage as the joint Opposition nominee for the presidential elections, it would have set the proverbial cat among the Hindutva pigeons.

All the pious talk that the post of President should be above politics and beyond caste is pretentious as best, as everybody knows. Presidential candidates are political appointees pure and simple.

Even if the chosen one is made to go through the statutory formalities and processes of getting elected securing the majority of votes cast by members of the Electoral College, comprised wholly of party-affiliated politicians, the truth is self-evident. Barring rare exceptions, the outcome of presidential elections in India have largely a foregone conclusion.

It is the party enjoying a majority in Parliament and in a sufficient number of State legislatures, which invariably calls the shots and gets its way.

The question is—could it have been different in 2017? If, again hypothetically, if the Opposition parties had selected a high caste candidate instead of making it a Dalit versus Dalit contest, what would have been the upshot?

At the very least, it could have led to serious soul searching within the Sangh Parivar. It could have also potentially led to intense discussions among BJP MPs and MLAs in the electoral college. It might have brought to the fore underlying conflicts of opinion that have been rumbling below the surface ever since the Vajpayee years and are still simmering silently in the Modi era.

As it transpired, the moment the Opposition parties announced Meira Kumar's name, all the potential dilemmas were dissolved. Tension dissipated. The danger that a Dalit versus Brahmin contest might have posed, even if theoretically, was averted.

It is a different matter that the election of a Dalit President will in no way act like a magic wand to bring together all the diverse strands of the Dalit population. The fragmentation and deep divisions within the Dalit community continue to be an issue of concern not only for political parties but for sociologists too.
A recent study by activists like B Sivaraman has highlighted the fact that even though, for instance, Dalit leaders like Prakash Ambedkar and Jignesh Mevani were at one time ready to share the same platform, they have not been able to work together for very long.

It is noteworthy that here are more than a dozen "active" dalit outfits in Maharashtra alone and at least half a dozen in the State of Karnataka.

In Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and in Telengana, Dalit politics is riven with divisions and lack of unity along sub-caste lines. Kerala does not even have a visible independent dalit movement as such. Attempts to unite all the dalit organisations have not borne fruit so far.

However, according to activists, the politics of networking and coming together on a broad platform for issue-based initiatives, and clustering up by many organisations in synchronised protests on major instances of atrocities like Khairlanjee appears to be a more successful working model. Yet, a powerful binding force to bring about such a durable networking or clustering at an all-India level has still not emerged.

In other words, even a Dalit President will not be genuinely representative of the Dalit population as a whole.


Vol. 50, No.3, Jul 23 - 29, 2017