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Will Modi have the last laugh in India's presidential polls?

Despite talks about electing meritorious candidates, the masses have typically voted for a candidate of their own caste

Will Modi have the last laugh in India's presidential polls?

The BJP's presidential nominee Ram Nath Kovind (secont left) meets leaders of the Telugu Desam Party, a regional party in Andhra Pradesh state, July 4 seeking their support. (Photo by IANS) 

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi
India

July 13, 2017

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The July 17 presidential election in the world's largest democracy is widely acknowledged to be an issue of caste. Both the government and opposition's nominations pitch a Dalit against a Dalit. It is a move that many have interpreted as political, and lacking altruistic motives to support India's socially oppressed classes.

In more ways than one, the Indian electorate is responsible for the caste issues that dominate their politics. Despite the talks about electing meritorious candidates, the masses have always typically voted for a candidate of their own caste. The political classes have danced to this tune and been careful not to disturb the caste-obsessed Indian psyche.

The caste system is referenced as far back as the ancient scripts, which identify the Brahmins — priestly people, the Kshatriyas — rulers, administrators and warriors, the Vaishyas — artisans, merchants, tradesmen and farmers, and Shudras — the laboring classes. Those not within this caste system are know as Dalit, the Sanskrit term that means trampled upon to denote the former untouchable castes within Hindu society.

Several laws and social initiatives to protect and improve the socioeconomic conditions of the lower-caste populations have been implemented since India gained independence in 1947. Despite this, caste politicking has more than simply survived; it has strengthened. Caste management has become a fundamental and fascinating aspect of political governance in the country: "votebank politics" as they put it.

In the initial decades after independence, upper-caste Brahmin Hindus and business communities dominated the political decisions irrespective of party affiliations. Even in the communist parties, upper-caste leaders had their say. But the last few decades saw lower castes and tribal people, who form some 25 percent of population, emerging as politically decisive power brokers with their leaders making assertions and defying upper-caste diktats.

This has culminated in a recent surge for political parties, vying against one another, to present themselves as pro-Dalit and support the rights and privileges of the most oppressed class whose grandparents were once considered untouchable.

The "Dalit verses Dalit" contest in the presidential election could easily be interpreted as part and parcel of this political game. But rather, this is something that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has asserted upon Indians. It started with the BJP's decision to field Ram Nath Kovind, a former low-profile Dalit parliamentarian and serving governor of Bihar state in eastern India, as its presidential candidate.

Days after Kovind's candidature was announced, the opposition coalition of Congress and other parties that include the Communists, named their candidate Meira Kumar, a 72-year-old Dalit. She is a former diplomat and a former speaker of the lower house of parliament.

Kumar's "caste identity" as a Dalit is more explicit because her father, the Late Jagjivan Ram, was the former defense minister of India in the 1970s and known for his humble social background.

In fact, that has reduced the political scrap of the 2017 presidential elections down to a "Dalit brother" against a "Dalit sister." Ironically, this pitching is neither about helping socially poor castes nor about fighting a political opposition. It is part of a "new generation politics" in India that Modi leads where the parliament lacks any serious opposition.

At the moment, Indian politics revolves around Modi with two streams of political thought — the pro-Modi and anti-Modi schools of politics. Modi knows he is the games master of Indian politics, the face of the BJP and enjoys asserting himself in that position. In practical terms, that means the BJP is Modi, and vice versa.

He could have negotiated with opposition parties to elect a consensus candidate for this mostly ceremonial role of president. Although party officials hinted at such a move early on, the BJP suddenly, and surprisingly, announced Kovind's name. It demonstrated the BJP's confidence in its supremacy, but it also projected the BJP as a party that is now more considerate of the Dalit cause.

But more than anything else, it challenged opposition parties either to oppose Modi or meekly support him in his game. Treated with such disdain, they could hardly support him, and they jointly nominated a Dalit woman, one of the best they could find.

The political message from the opposition camp, which includes the parties on the Left, is: "we oppose Kovind because we fight Modi." The refrain is: "the opposition is against Modi and not against Kovind nor the Dalit people." Their leaders continue to make that clear at every opportunity.

Numbers wise, the BJP nominee is far ahead with around 63 percent of the vote share from the electoral college. The electoral college comprises all members of both the houses of parliament and the elected legislators from the 29 state assemblies.

With support from several regional parties, Kovind is set to win. The opposition, although certain to fail, nominated a candidate just to wriggle out of the ignominy Modi had thrust upon them. As prime minister, Modi "could have played a statesman-like game" to have a president selected by consensus. "But he is not quite a political reformist," the Communist Party of India leader D. Raja told me.

But Modi, as opposition leaders say, had his own political compulsions to present the BJP as a pro-Dalit party. Dalits have in the past given their support to smaller and regional parties and leaders. Until recently, the BJP was always seen as the party of upper-caste Hindus, an image Modi wanted to change.

The recurring attacks on Dalit people in the name of "cow protectionism" by certain Hindu groups in recent months have also negatively impacted the party. Such incidents have increased since extremist Hindu groups, who wanted to assert their upper-caste Hindu hegemony, advanced their cause in the wake of the BJP's 2014 national election victory. This further damaged the party's image among Dalit people.

Modi himself belongs to a lower caste, though not a Dalit. In the complicated caste hierarchy his caste comes a step or two above Dalit groups.  However, whenever the opportunity arises to appease Dalit groups, he parades his humble lineages to attract Dalit sympathy.

On the contrary, although Congress had several Dalit people in its ranks, no one came to the leadership position that Modi enjoys now. Political history will prove that Meira's father, a Congress man, could not become prime minister because of his caste background.  Although Dalit groups supported Congress up to three decades ago, no Dalit leader could climb the political ladder above a certain rung. They have abandoned Congress in recent years to join regional parties. Hence, it is essential for Congress to win back the Dalit groups and, at the same time, to oppose Modi.

Neither do the Communists want to be seen opposing Dalits. Their rank and file is the working class, mostly Dalits. It has become convenient for them to join the Congress to support the candidature of Meira for political considerations.

However, the opposition is fractured and sadly lags behind the BJP. They named Meira "as a reaction" to the BJP's Dalit nominee, said Saud K. Kavitha, a parliamentarian from the Telangana Rashtra Samithi party in the southern state of Telangana. Having already decided to back Kovind, she added, "We do not approve of this. They could have discussed it earlier."

For his part, Modi plays the game exuding confidence and with a proper plan at hand. He aims to use the presidential polls to achieve yet another political milestone. If, and when he achieves it, he will be able to denounce his political detractors who have attacked him for being pro-Hindu and the party of the upper castes. He will have delivered the country's second Dalit president after Kocheril Raman Narayanan who was the tenth President of India from 1997 to 2002.

Nirendra Dev is a senior journalist based in New Delhi.

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