Dalit for President: Tokenism wins
It's a no-brainer, for the result is known before the contest. The support which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been able to muster for its presidential candidate Ram Nath Kovind in the electoral college will give him an easy ride to Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Even then, the confrontation between him and the opposition's nominee, Meira Kumar, will provide an idea of the contours of the bigger battle which awaits the two sides in less than two years.
For the moment, the BJP has the edge. The party may succeed in retaining it till the 2019 general election. But the margin between the combatants is not written in stone. The chances of it changing, therefore, cannot be ruled out if the BJP's outreach to the Dalits via Kovind fails to make an impact on the community or if the farmers' agitations show no sign of abating.
The very fact that the BJP chose a Dalit underlined its nervousness over the widening of the gulf between the community and the party ever since the bright young Dalit scholar, Rohith Vemula, was virtually driven to suicide in Hyderabad by the combined hounding of the saffron apparatchiki among students, the university authorities and the ministers in Delhi.
The more recent clashes between the Dalits and the upper-caste Thakurs in Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh, where a Thakur is the Chief Minister, and the earlier lynching of a group of Dalits at Una, Gujarat, by gau rakshaks (cow vigilantes) for skinning a dead cow, their traditional occupation, have deepened the sense of alienation among the Dalits towards the Hindutva brigade.
There was no alternative, therefore, for the BJP but to try to douse the flames by momentarily suppressing its 'savarna' (upper caste) instincts and opting for a Dalit President. It is anybody's guess, however, whether the act of tokenism will succeed, for few among the Dalits will believe that the saffron brotherhood's ingrained bias against the lower castes is about to undergo a dramatic change.
In real life, therefore, outside the heated atmosphere of Lutyens Delhi, the electoral arithmetic is likely to remain more or less the same, as will the efforts by a new generation of young Dalits emerging from Saharanpur and Una to put together a Dalit-Muslim alliance.
However, since tokenism begets tokenism, the Congress-led 17-member opposition group has also fielded a Dalit, former Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar, to oppose Kovind. Most observers are likely to regard her as a sacrificial lamb in view of the virtual impossibility of her coming anywhere near the winning post. But what she can introduce into a campaign whose outcome is known is the ideological difference between the multicultural "idea of India", which she represents, and the monolithic "idea of Hindu rashtra", which her opponent with his roots in the Hindu supremacist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) stands for.
If the BJP's nominee indeed believes that the Muslims and Christians are aliens in India, he will set off a controversy which the BJP will not relish at a time when it is laboriously trying to feel its way through the labyrinthine diversity of the country's cultural scene as the party's contradictory takes on what the people can eat have shown.
Apart from the ideological battles, what is clear is that caste has become the leitmotif of the Presidential election, underlying a step backwards towards the country's primordial past when a person's worth was mostly judged on the basis of his birth at the expense of his or her intrinsic merits.
In the BJP's case, however, Kovind's caste credentials were reinforced by his persona. His low-key style evidently made him an ideal choice in Narendra Modi's presidential mode of governance where one man, viz, the Prime Minister, towers over the rest. In such a milieu, the palpably modest Kovind, who was seen as an ideal Governor in Bihar by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, fits the bill.
Kovind's moderation is another point in his favour, for he appears to be quite unlike the forthright Governor of Tripura, Tathagata Roy of the BJP, who wanted those who attended the terrorist Yakub Memon's funeral to be kept under permanent surveillance as potential subversives.
Only time will show whether Kovind will be as ideal a President as he was the Governor in Bihar. Considering that the BJP's 2002 choice as President, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, once sent the office of profit bill back to the cabinet, as a President is entitled to do, and publicly regretted the signing of the resolution dissolving the Bihar assembly in 2005, Kovind will have to live up to high standards.
India has seen submissive Presidents such as Giani Zail Singh, who famously said that he was willing to sweep the floor if his leader Indira Gandhi asked him to do so, and Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, who infamously signed the proclamation for throttling democracy on the morning of June 25, 1975 without asking whether it had been approved by the cabinet.
The new President will have to show that his only allegiance is to the "holy book" of the Constitution as the Prime Minister has described the manuscript.