The suspense is finally over with the National Democratic Alliance announcing its presidential nominee – Ram Nath Kovind. But one of the mystifying aspects of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s process for selecting its candidate for Rashtrapati Bhavan is why it chose to go through the motions of evolving a consensus.
It had the numbers to get past the finishing line. Yet it chose to constitute a three member committee comprising Arun Jaitley, Rajnath Singh and M Venkaiah Naidu to talk to the opposition parties. It is not as if there was a discussion on specific names – no name was forwarded by the ruling side nor was one given by the opposition parties.
At one stage, it looked like a close call for the NDA, as it was short by around 20,000 votes. The BJP had to contend with an errant ally in the Shiv Sena, which continued to play hard ball and had voted against the NDA nominees in 2007 and in 2012 . Such were the tensions between the BJP and its oldest ally that only last week Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis had to publicly state that the BJP was ready to face a mid term election in the state, if push came to shove, though Amit Shah, not wanting to ruffle Sena feathers, ruled this out.
But even taking into account the unreliability of the Shiv Sena, the BJP had very soon become comfortable, given the support it had managed to elicit from the Telengana Rashtra Samithi, the YSR Congress and the two factions of the AIDMK, who have not managed to merge but most of whose MLAs were expected to vote for the NDA nominee. (The Biju Janta Dal came on board once Ram Nath Kovind’s for Presidentship name was announced. So for that matter has the Shiv Sena.)
So why seek consensus?
There can be two explanations for the BJP’s consensus seeking stance.
One, that Narendra Modi has decided to shift gear, and if he manages to secure a substantial support across the political spectrum, which is likely, it will be another feather in his cap. He did manage to get the Goods and Services Tax through, despite the stonewalling from the Congress for three years, and this has sent its own signal both to the domestic and the international investor.
Modi is seen as a strong leader today, given the tough positions he has taken on Kashmir, and against Pakistan. The continuing polarisation over beef and cow vigilantism has gone to reinforce his Hindu Hridaya Samrat image. A near-consensus over the presidential poll would help mitigate some of the criticism that is coming his way from the liberal opinion at home and in the global fora, over the undermining of democratic institutions, such as media, Non-Governmental Organisations and universities.
The second explanation for the frenetic activity around consensus building may be the coalition pulls within the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-BJP-NDA combine that the prime minister has had to contend with. The RSS, which has emerged as a major player in the decision-making processes at the top, cannot be ignored and they had their own ideas – Murli Manohar Joshi, Ram Naik – about the next head of state.
Modi wanted his own person in Rashtrapati Bhavan who would move in step with him, and Kovind’s selection carries the stamp of the prime minister. The RSS wanted someone who would be the spokesperson of its ideology and could help create a mahaul – atmosphere – in the country in favour of its philosophy of a Hindu Rashtra. Modi could have opted for a hawkish person, but instead he plumped for a softer, more moderate face, even though Kovind is from the ranks of the RSS, and the prime minister used the consensus route to justify the elevation of such a person.
Kovind is known across the political spectrum for his politeness and courtesy, and Nitish Kumar complimented him for the absence of any controversy in his dealings with the government of Bihar, where Kovind has been governor. Also, and this is not without significance, Kovind cut his teeth in politics with the late Prime Minister Morarji Desai who had headed the Janata Party government between 1977-’79. The opposition parties had expressed the hope that whoever the NDA chose would not be an aggressive RSS figure, and expressed their willingness to support leaders like LK Advani and Sushma Swaraj.
Ram Nath Kovind’s selection has confused and divided the Opposition. The presidential poll presented the non-NDA parties the first real opportunity to band together and field a joint candidate against the NDA nominee, and this might have given a fillip to opposition unity for the 2019 battle that lies ahead. An opposition candidate against Kovind may still happen but with the opposition divided, it would not have the kind of political impact which might have otherwise been forthcoming.
Kovind is a Dalit, and is from the state of Uttar Pradesh so strategically important for the BJP. The party is not unaware of the growing Dalit restlessness in different parts of the country, after Rohit Vemula, Una, Haryana and more recently Saharanpur. It can ill afford to alienate the Dalits when they had gravitated to it both in 2014 and more recently in the Uttar Pradesh polls, particularly those belonging to the non-Jatav communities. Kovind belongs to one of these smaller communities amongst Dalits, the Kolis, and the BJP can be expected to go to town in the coming months to underline his Dalit antecedents – which Amit Shah did while announcing his candidature – and to underscore his humble beginnings, like that of Modi. If elected, the President would be a Dalit and the Prime Minister from Other Backward Classes, and the BJP brass is not shy of pointing this out, in a party which traditionally was considered a Bania-Brahmin outfit.
Besides, the BJP cannot afford to risk the Dalits distancing themselves from the party for another reason. The livelihoods of Dalits in the leather businesses and their eating habits have been affected by the recent cattle notification, and if they join hands with the Muslims, they would add up to 33-34% of the population against the BJP in a state like UP, which can become problematic for the party in 2019.
Besides asserting his authority, and dividing the opposition, with his Kovind ambit, Narendra Modi has demonstrated once again that his eyes are set on the bull’s eye he must hit in 2019.