Ever since the Bahujan Samaj Party's Mayawati lost her political clout in the country’s most populous state, where she rose to become the chief minister four times, rival political parties have left no stone unturned to tap into the Dalit vote bank. Sure enough, it was a part of that very strategy that the BJP fished out a Dalit to be nominated for the president’s job.
Ram Nath Kovind might have been the governor of Bihar, but even after having done two terms as Rajya Sabha member, he remained just another BJP leader of very little consequence. His low-profile apparently became an asset for him as it suited the top BJP leadership to have a “rubber stamp” sitting on Raisina Hill.
When Kovind was handpicked to be sent to the Bihar Raj Bhavan, he was among the least known BJP MPs. His background as Allahabad High Court lawyer and later a Supreme Court counsel did not enhance his profile as there were only very few briefs to his credit. Yet, he was handpicked for the country’s top job by the RSS because he could foot Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah’s bill.
After all what they were keenly looking for in their presidential nominee was nothing more than a low-profile Dalit leader, who could be showcased to display the party’s love for the lowest in the rung of the downtrodden.
Widely seen as a pro-upper caste outfit, the BJP could not have found a better occasion to go to town proving its critics wrong. Evidently, the idea is not just to cobble up a majority out of the electoral college for the president’s post. The larger intent, evidently, was to send a message across to the large Dalit vote bank that could do wonders for the party later in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, when PM Modi would be keenly looking for a second term.
Even as Mayawati managed to retain her vote share of 21 per cent in the March 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly election, she suffered further loss of credibility in the subsequent months when some of her prominent party colleagues such as Naseemuddin Siddiqui deserted her.
Her one-time close confidante and popular Dalit leader, Swami Prasad Maurya, had earlier switched loyalties to the BJP, where he had eventually grabbed a berth in Yogi Adityanath’s cabinet.
It may be true that Maurya’s exit did not make an immediate dent in Mayawati’s Dalit support base, but the fact remains that as time went by, she went on losing support.
Sure enough, today there is a huge chunk of the Dalit vote, quite disillusioned with Mayawati and the BSP. And it was that floating vote, the BJP now aims to tap by playing up the Kovind card. None of the opposition parties are in a position to grab this Dalit vote bank that appears to have given up on Mayawati after her party failed to pull off anything beyond 19 seats in the 403-member state Vidhan Sabha in March 2017.
Even as she went about claiming that the sharp fall in her party’s tally had not affected her hold over 21 per cent Dalit vote in the state, her loss of face was clearly visible.
The fact remained that Dalits had begun to realise how Mayawati had been using them as a vote bank without actually doing anything concrete in terms of fulfilling their long-standing aspirations of getting employment or any kind of socio-economic empowerment.
Perhaps it was Mayawati’s persistent arrogance, her focus on filling her coffers and her continued inaccessibility to the common man that dissuaded a good chunk of her traditional voters to move away.
With the Congress having failed to rise to the occasion and build its potential to take on the BJP, Dalits were bound to tilt towards the BJP, which was out to bait them. Under the circumstances, what could be a more tempting bait than a Dalit fielded as the party’s nominee for the top position of president.
Kovind’s humble origins from the rustic corners of Kanpur Dehat were bound to come in handy for the BJP to impress upon the UP electorate in 2019 that the party had risen well beyond its essentially upper-caste identity.
Therefore, even if the party were to lose hold over a section of its traditional vote bank of traders, who were quite averse to the introduction of GST, the saffron ranks could add bigger numbers through the newly acquired support of a large section of Dalits.
UP was crucial in Modi’s ride to the power pedestal in 2014. Even if he is unlikely to cast the same spell on the people of the country’s most populous state in 2019, the Dalit factor (in the form of Kovind) could bring in rich dividends to keep Modi in place, once again.