On June 10, 2002, the government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee announced its decision to nominate the scientist APJ Abdul Kalam as its Presidential candidate. This caught the Opposition off-guard. The media hailed it as if it was a masterstroke, a descriptor that is now employed to praise every decision that Prime Minister Narendra Modi takes.

Who could have ever argued against the choice of Kalam? He was already known as India’s rocket man, had played a prominent role in the nuclear test of 1998, and was Muslim. A nationalist Muslim arming India was just the person Prime Minister Vajpayee needed to silence his ideological critics.

The summer of 2002 is replaying itself in June 2017. Once again, the BJP has thrown the Opposition into disarray with its choice of Ram Nath Kovind as its candidate for President. Just as one cannot argue against a nationalist Muslim, one cannot criticise the choice of a Dalit.

So what if it’s a Dalit who has not really been known to have stood at street corners to demand, in strident language, an end to the atrocities routinely perpetrated by members of the upper castes, to have them punished; a Dalit who does not have a reputation for critiquing India’s hierarchical caste order and who has not threatened to upset the distribution of power in society?

One cannot but support such a Dalit, as you must a Muslim general or defence scientist. If you fail to do so, you are bound to be labelled anti-Dalit, as Union Minister Ram Vilas Paswan has already warned those who might want to vote against Kovind. Thus, in one stroke, ideology and identity have been made to overlap.

Kalam then, Kovind now

The BJP’s choice of Kalam in 2002 and, now, of Kovind as presidential candidates share another similarity. In February-March 2002, Gujarat was the site of a grisly pogrom that led to the deaths of over 1,000 Muslims. The properties of tens of thousands of others were looted or burnt. Many were uprooted from their hearths. It fuelled outrage outside Gujarat. By all accounts, Vajpayee was shocked at the scale of violence.

It was against this backdrop that Kalam was chosen as the BJP’s presidential candidate. Kalam was supposed to be a salve, so to speak, for India’s injured collective conscience. For Muslims clamouring for justice, his nomination mattered very little – after all, the rise of one of their own to a ceremonial post could not possibly have diminished the sorrow and fear they experienced over Gujarat.

Kalam, however, had a great symbolic meaning for Hindus outraged at the breakdown of the state machinery in Gujarat. For them, the choice of Kalam was an assurance that the Sangh Parivar did not mindlessly hate Muslims but was actully capable of atoning for an act of grave injustice by bestowing honour on a worthy Muslim. It also reinforced their faith in Vajpayee’s much-touted liberalism.

(Photo credit: HT).

Likewise, the backdrop to the nomination of Kovind is the Dalit upsurge India has been witnessing over the last three years. From insisting that Rohith Vemula, the Dalit student of Hyderabad Central University who committed suicide in January 2016, actually belonged to the Other Backward Castes, to the flogging of Dalits in Una in July 2016 for skinning a dead cow; from the BJP’s Uttar Pradesh vice-president Dayashankar Singh saying last year that Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati was “worse than a prostitute”, to the party giving Singh’s wife, Swati Singh, an Assembly ticket for the Uttar Pradesh elections and then including her in the Adityanath ministry in March – instances of the BJP humiliating Dalits abound.

More significantly, ever since Adityanath became Uttar Pradesh chief minister, Dalits in the state have felt the heat of anger and disdain of the upper caste. For instance, last month, Saharanpur witnessed violent clashes between Rajputs and Dalits, whose houses were burnt down, their men beaten. When the Bhim Army under Chandrashekhar Azad protested, fiery young Dalit men were picked up. Many have multiple cases filed against them.

Then again, when Adityanath in May visited Shergarhi, a Dalit colony in Meerut, the residents booed and shouted slogans against him. The chief minister incurred their wrath because the BJP footsoldiers made it a point to chant “Jai Shri Ram”, instead of the Dalit slogan “Jai Bhim”, and refused to pay obeisance at the Ambedkar statue placed there. There was a message in the Dalit residents’ show of irreverence to Adityanath – that he and the BJP cannot hope to co-opt them into the Hindutva fold through tokenism.

BJP’s tokenism

It is in this context that Kovind has been nominated. What then is the symbolic significance of Kovind – and for whom?

The choice of Kovind will certainly not placate those segments of the Dalit movement engaged in the struggle against caste-based discrimination and atrocities, who have been demanding their rights guaranteed in the Constitution. They have moved beyond such symbolism as inter-dining, for which the BJP has demonstrated a special penchant of late. They want their leaders to spearhead a movement to confront their tormentors, a trait the relatively unknown Kovind is not known to possess.

But Kovind, hailing as he does to Uttar Pradesh, might hold some value for those Dalits outside the umbrella of the Bahujan Samaj Party. It is their votes the BJP has been garnering. Given the rising anger of Uttar Pradesh’s Dalits against Adityanath, remarkably evident on June 18 at Jantar Mantar, Delhi, where a protest rally was held to demand the release of Bhim Army activists languishing in prison, Kovind is a manoeuvre to ensure that Dalits do not consolidate across subcastes. He is a counterfoil to the leadership of the Jatav community, to which Mayawati belongs and Kovind does not.

Modi and BJP president Amit Shah will offer Kovind as an argument for, and evidence of, what they have done to uplift Dalits. He will be also their counter-argument to Dalit leaders who are forever keen to point to the injustices inherent in the Hindu social order. Modi and Shah will ask these leaders what benefits have they provided to Dalits other than the Jatavs.

From this perspective, the nomination of Kovind as a presidential candidate is not a masterstroke but a cynical one.

This is more so because over the last three years the BJP has not attempted to use its majority in the Lok Sabha to create an autonomous Dalit leadership – men and women capable of influencing the party and government’s policy, argues Vivek Kumar of Jawaharlal Nehru University in a forthcoming piece.

The only BJP Dalit in the Modi cabinet is Thanwar C Gehlot. “What agency does he have?” asked Kumar. “Is his profile comparable to other ministers? Instead of creating a Dalit leadership enjoying a degree of autonomy, we will now have Kovind occupying the largely ceremonial post of President.”

In fact, in the late 1990s, Kumar interviewed Kovind as part of his fieldwork for his PhD dissertation. He said that he found no “academic value” in Kovind’s responses, and noted that Kovind was particularly clueless in offering suggestions for how atrocities against Dalits should be tackled.

Staying within the lines

Creating Dalit leadership with agency is not quite possible in the BJP beyond a point. Venturing further than that would mean flouting the tenets of Hindutva. And so, a Dalit in the BJP must accept that Christians and Muslims in India are foreigners, as Kovind once suggested. They must also accept the primacy of education over reservations as a panacea for the exclusion of Dalit from jobs, which is also what Kovind suggested, as a recent piece on The Wire on a Wikileaks document brought out.

They must also agree that economics underlie the discrimination against Dalits, not caste, a view to which Kovind subscribes. And they will certainly not have the temerity to demand reservations in the private sector. In other words, the Hindu-ness of a Dalit must subsume the Dalit-ness of their identity.

Indeed, a Dalit in the BJP must not question why the foremost of Hindutva ideologues Vinayak Damodar Savarkar penned, as he did in his book Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History, words such as these: “A man like the late Dr Ambedkar, burning with hatred against Hinduism…” and “Hindu-haters like Dr Ambedkar…”

A supporter of the Dalit community holds up the image of BR Ambedkar during the Dalit Asmita Yatra rally in Valthera village near Ahmedabad, Gujarat, on August 6, 2016. (Photo credit: AFP/Sam Panthaky).

Kovind, as all Dalits in the BJP, must see no contradiction in hailing Ambedkar and Savarkar in the same breath. Nor should they publicly trace the font of Ambedkar’s anger or, to use Savarkar’s word, hatred against Hinduism.

No doubt, the BJP will turn Kovind into a model of what a good Dalit should be: they should believe in Hindutva and rely on the good heartedness of the upper caste to reform society. In adhering to this model lies both the hope and succour for Dalits, according to this line of reasoning.

This is not to say that Kovind lacks the qualities to become President. But to portray Kovind’s inevitable entry into Rashtrapati Bhavan as a symbol of subaltern assertion and rise is an exaggeration aimed at dissipating the energy of the Dalit movement.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid.