Loss of shine as Dalit card being overplayed

By Cleofato A Coutinho
30 June 2017 18:19 IST


The country wishes to have the next President, a statesman of eminence. How eminent is Ram Nath Kovind the NDA’s nominee? Any question over Kovind, you get a repartee- what about Pratibha Patil? Those who question the reservation system on social media are suddenly finding merit in the caste status of Kovind. The choice of Pratibha Patil of course raised eyebrows. But in recent times K.R. Narayanan, Abdul Kalam and Pranab Mukherjee were popularly acceptable Presidents.     Nobody questioned their integrity.

As the BJP spokespersons flashed the Dalit credentials of Kovind, everybody questioned the choice of a low lying Governor being placed on the pedestal.   The Dalit community was facing disenchantment and alienation due to firstly the banning of Periyar Ambedkar Study Circle at IIT Madras, Rohit Vemula issue, thereafter the Una incident and Saharanpur clashes.  Their leather business and eating habits were under attack. The Bahujan Samaj Party, which despite loss of power commands a respectable vote share, which with the Samajwadi Party could make a lethal combination. Another view was that Kovind’s choice was probably with a view to split the opposition, knowing the mind of Nitish Kumar. But there is unanimity that choice of Ram Nath Kovind is a master stroke with the 2019 elections in mind. The opposition response is similar. Meira Kumar, whose USP goes beyond caste, religion and birth place, is Jagjivan Ram’s daughter and ‘Bihar ki Beti’- only to counter the Kovind’s Dalit card and may be to embarrass Nitish Kumar.

The two nominees reveal how deeply the country is entrenched in castes politics. The Indian Presidency is used as a pawn on the electoral chess-board. This is not the first time that a Dalit has been fielded for the post of President. K.R. Narayanan became the first Dalit President. But nobody said that he was fielded to counter the increasing influence of the BSP in India. In fact Dalit scholar Kancha Illhaya accuses the Congress party of not exploiting his Dalit background. Narayanan had been most assertive, though not activist, President who upheld the core constitutional values particularly when it came to Centre-State relations. Even Pranab Mukherjee failed when it came to Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand and President Kalam faltered on Bihar.

When we inaugurated our Republic, the choice before the country  was C. Rajagopalachari, the Governor General, a great scholar referred to as the ‘wisest   man of  India’ and the President of the Constituent Assembly Shri Rajendra Prasad. Jawaharlal Nehru, himself a towering political personality, did not succeed in stopping the elevation of Rajendra Prasad and despite a bitter confrontation over the Hindu code bill, Nehru did not impose his personal will when it came to giving Rajendra Prasad a second term. After him came Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, an outstanding scholar with international recognition.  His tenure as the president Vice Chancellor of Banaras University and his monumental works on culture, religion and Indian heritage put him in a preeminent position. We then had another scholar educationist who distinguished himself as a Vice Chancellor of the Aligarh Muslim University, Governor of Bihar and Vice President of India. President Zakir Hussain had impeccable CV but he was chosen not on that basis but to prove our bonafides as a secular state which led to even Muslim League to support him. Otherwise anti-Congress stalwarts like Humayun Kabir backed his candidature. The other side led by the Jan Sangh brought the campaign to a low level attacking Zakir Hussain as a fanatic Muslim. He lost his scholarship to religion. The problem was not the choice of Zakir Hussain but the drawing of country’s attention to the fact that the nominee was a Muslim.

The country has stopped looking for scholarship and integrity in their first citizen. Prime Ministers wanted pliable Presidents. But even in 1969 when Indira Gandhi dumped Jagjivan Ram for   V. V. Giri, nobody played the Dalit card! Thereafter Fakruddin Ali Ahmed and Giani Zail Singh were Mrs. Gandhi’s personal choices. P. C. Alexander lost to Pratibha Patil only due to him being a Christian.  Fakruddin Ali Ahmed disgraced the post by signing the emergency notification even before the cabinet approval. What could we expect from Giani Zail Singh, the one who proclaimed that he was happy to sweep the room if Mrs. Gandhi asked him? 

Sanjiva Reddy (1977), R. Venkataraman (1987), Shankar Dayal Sharma (1992), A. P. J. Abdul Kalam (2002) were personal choices of the government of the day. President Kalam had a strong CV as a country’s missile scientist but his choice also was not over eminence, but due to the community he belonged to after the 2002 Gujarat carnage. The choice of Kalam as a Presidential nominee was also hailed as a master stroke. It was symbolic tokenism of A. B. Vajpayee’s liberal outlook. For the community in misery, the tokenism did not matter and the rise of their own to the titular post hardly brought down their sorrows.

As the Bania Brahmin Party goes to town announcing the Dalit antecedents of Kovind, the question is whether that would help bridge the gap of the community with the BJP. Can the BSP be eroded of its core base? Can Nitish Kumar be separated from UPA?   It is sad that this is how the nomination of Kovind is seen. But the elevation of Kovind is worth it, if the choice is to assuage the hurt in the collective conscience of the Dalit community. That is certainly not the case.

The Presidency of the country is battered for political expediency with an eye on 2019 election. The ceremonial post is losing its shine with the question being raised: Do we need a President at all?

Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author's own.

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Cleofato A Coutinho

Cleofato Almeida Coutinho is a senior lawyer and one of the constitutional expert in Goa. A member of Law Commission of Goa, he also teaches at Kare College of Law in Madgao.

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