The Bharatiya Janta Party’s decision on Monday to field Bihar governor Ram Nath Kovind as its presidential candidate was interpreted by many political analysts as an attempt to win the support of Dalits, a community who have long viewed the saffron party with suspicion.

This impression gained strength when it seemed likely that nomation of Kovind, a Dalit from Kanpur, could earn the backing of two Opposition leaders – Bahujan Samaj Party head Mayawati and Janata Dal (United) chief Nitish Kumar, who is seen as a champion of the poorest Mahadalits. Even as Opposition leaders are meeting on June 22 to devise their strategy to counter the BJP, Kumar said that he was personally happy at Kovind’s candidature.

However, in Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar, a predominantly Dalit area in northeast Mumbai, few residents seemed overly impressed by the BJP’s decision. It was just another instance of vote bank politics, said Nilesh Barve, who works with a travel company. To civil works contractor Anil Jagdale and mass media student Rakesh Patil, Kovind was merely “another puppet” from the minorities “in the hands of a casteist party”.

Until Monday, few residents of Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar had heard of the low-profile Kovind, even though he had previously headed the BJP’s Dalit wing and serving as Bihar govenor when his candidature was announced.

“Various political parties have been using caste identities to fill their vote banks and this move is no different,” said Aruna Ahire, a homemaker. “And if Ram Nath Kovind comes to power, we will feel abused yet again. Even though he will be appointed at the highest position, it will be a nominal position nonetheless.”

History of struggle

The residents of Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar have a reputation for being more politically active than many other Mumbaikars. That reputation springs from a tragedy that occured in the area on July 11, 1997, when a statute of BR Ambedkar, the Dalit icon who is the architect of India’s Constitution, was desecrated with a garland of footwear. People protesting that act were met with bullets from the police, which left 11 dead and 26 injured.

The police officer who ordered the firing got away without any punishment.

The statue of BR Ambedkar at Mumbai's Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar.

When the firing took place, the BJP was part of the state’s ruling alliance, along with the Shiv Sena. That act of injustice still weighs heavily on many in the neighbourhood, as do other attacks on Dalits over the last few years.

“Eleven Dalits from this very locality died during their tenure the last time BJP were in power,” said Sudhakar More, a retired resident of the Ramabai Nagar. Since then, other atrocities had followed, he said, noting the suicide of Dalit PhD scholar Rohith Vemula at the University of Hyderabad in January 2016 after a chain of events that had begun with a scuffle Vemula and other members of the Ambedkar Students Association got into with the BJP’s student organisation, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad.

“A Dalit nursing student was brutally killed in Shirdi for using a ringtone that praised Ambedkar not more than two years ago,” said More. “Against this background, Kovind’s nomination seems like nothing but minority appeasement.”

But Deepak Bhosale, a shopkeeper, said he was thankful that Dalits were getting due representation. He hoped that with a Dalit becoming India’s President, the frequent attacks on Dalits would stop.

“Ram Nath Kovind has been working for the Bahujans and on the path shown by Dr. Ambedkar,” said Bhosale. “I expect Ram Nath Kovind to help build an egalitarian society and put an end to the casteism around us.”

Nilesh Barve works with a travel company.

However Anil Jagdale, the civil works contractor, contended that yet again, the BJP had appointed a Dalit to a nominal position.

“Yogi Adityanath [the Hindutva hardliner who serves as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh] and Ram Nath Kovind are two different sides of the same coin called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh,” said Jagdale. “This is a perfect example of Brahmanical politics that we, the residents of Ramabai Nagar, are very used to. It’s called firing over somebody else’s shoulder.”