Ram Nath Kovind, a member of India’s lower-caste Dalit community, is likely to become the country’s next president after the results of parliamentary polls are announced Thursday. Kovind’s candidacy as part of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is widely perceived to be part of a strategy of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist cohort to consolidate the party’s support among the country’s lower-caste voters.
“I am sure Shri Ram Nath Kovind will make an exceptional president and continue to be a strong voice for the poor, downtrodden and marginalized,” Modi tweeted after Kovind’s nomination last month.
Even though it has campaigned on preserving conservative Hindu traditions, including sanctity of upper-caste Brahmins, the BJP is dependent on the votes of Dalits and other lower castes to win crucial states. In the state of Bihar, the third most populous state, Modi and the BJP suffered a demoralizing defeat to the rival Rashtriya Janata Dal party in 2015 State Assembly elections. Bihar’s low-caste communities voted heavily in support of RJD and its leader, Lalu Prasad Yadav, who was able to strike a fruitful electoral alliance between Bihar’s Muslims and the state’s marginalized, cow-herding Yadav caste.
Dalits, according to Hindu tradition, are believed to lie outside the four castes that determine the lives of Hindus, including their occupations and statuses in society. For much of the country’s history, they have been considered “impure,” suffering decades of exclusion and poverty that affirmative action programs in India have attempted to redress.
Learning from past mistakes, the BJP under Modi has softened its stance on caste issues. In March, the right-wing Hindu party secured a major victory in India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, winning over the state’s lower-caste votes. Modi steered clear of potentially divisive language in his speeches, and the party was reported to have inducted members of the lower caste in leadership positions. Not surprisingly, Modi and the BJP are continuing this trend with the latest nomination of Ram Nath Kovind for president.
This thinly veiled attempt to secure Dalit support for future elections hasn’t slipped the attention of Indians. Indian academic Harish Wankhede remarked on the shrewdness of BJP and Modi for the Wire last month:
While the BJP has been trying to get the support of Dalits, many among the Dalits believed that the top posts after it wins would go to the party’s upper caste cadre. Yogi Adityanath, Devendra Fadnavis or Manohar Khattar all came from the Sangh or Hindutva fold and were upper caste saffron leaders. They mostly resorted to political tokenism when it came to rewarding Dalits. Kovind’s candidature is a big step forward.
And while the impact of Kovind’s nomination on lower castes is still unclear, Modi’s government still faces roadblocks in these communities. The BJP’s support of cow protection measures and Hindu nationalist campaigns to ban the consumption of cow meat has been indirectly linked to a recent spate of mob lynchings. In the Indian state of Gujarat, a mob of vigilantes was filmed flogging seven men belonging to the Dalit caste after being accused of skinning a dead cow. This led to a wave of protests across India condemning BJP and Modi’s silence over the violence. Bans of meat instituted by BJP-led state governments have also hit India’s low castes the hardest, as thousands are employed in unskilled jobs in the meat and leather goods industries.
Kovind’s rival for president also hails from India’s Dalit community, further emphasizing the importance of caste in Indian politics right now. Meira Kumar, a longtime member of the Indian Parliament, is the nominee of the Indian National Congress–backed United Progressive Alliance. Although its leaders have exploited caste concerns to win votes, the Congress—in an interesting case of the pot calling the kettle black—has routinely blamed rivaling BJP and Modi for dividing the country along caste and religious lines. “The BJP mislead people and try trapping them,” Congress leader Sonia Gandhi said at 2014 rally. “They are doing caste-based politics. They want to divide people. They have a cheap mentality, and their ideology tries to harm the diversity of this nation.”
Caste, in short, remains perhaps the single most influential factor in Indian politics despite rapid modernization of the world’s largest democracy, as proven in the latest presidential contest. And Narendra Modi, who won a landslide victory by widening the party’s appeal beyond the orthodox Hindu class, is sure to milk it for all it’s worth.