The New President Of India: Hope For The Unscheduled Castes?

Ram Nath Kovind, a member of India’s poorest and most persecuted caste is expected to win the presidential election on the 20th of July. If he succeeds, he will become the second ever president from a scheduled caste and would offer renewed hope to Dalits (people from scheduled castes) throughout the country.

Violence and discrimination against Dalits has been commonplace in India for generations and is a daily occurrence. It is estimated that each week, 13 Dalits are murdered, 21 Dalit women are raped, and 6 Dalit people are kidnapped. On top of this, there are also huge social problems for Dalits, and many members of the higher castes will refuse to eat with them or will prevent them from entering into their home. The election of a Dalit president may help to counter this widespread oppression.

However, some commentators have argued that selection of a Dalit by the Bharatiya Janta Party is no more than a political move to consolidate new voters. The Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP),  led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is traditionally a nationalist right-wing party that believes the institutions and culture of India are Hindu. For the Dalits, who lie outside the four-tiered Hindu caste system, this would not be a natural party to vote for as they would be excluded from the primary workings of society.

The choice of Kovind may be a ploy by the BJP to conceal some of the more nationalist and outspoken members of the party. Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of the Uttar Pradesh State, reportedly asked Dalits to “clean themselves” before an official visit and even gave them soap. He also praised Donald Trump’s ban on Muslims, arguing that India should adopt a similar system to combat terrorism.

As controversial a figure is Narendra Modi, prime minister of India, who was accused of initiating and condoning the Gujarat riots in 2002, where more than a thousand people were killed. It is officially defined as a “communist uprising,” but many scholars instead see it as a pogrom against the Muslim community in Gujarat that should be seen as ethnic cleansing. Modi was acquitted of the charges in 2012, but they have made large swathes of the electorate skeptical of him.

Whilst the election of Kovind may still prove to be a progressive and genuine decision by the BJP, his background suggests that he is a malleable figure who will act as Narendra Modi’s vassal. When he was a spokesperson for the BJP from 2010 to 2012, he only spoke in three press conferences. A BJP colleague of his told the Hindustan Times: “He wasn’t a favourite in TV studios. He was too simple to spice up on-screen debates.” Kovind would rarely take part in “off the record talk and limited himself to the briefing from the party brass.”

The Hindustan Times also commented on the fact that he had come from near anonymity to being the main candidate in this presidential race. Even Narendra Modi, in a tweet, emphasized Kovind’s humble background, saying that he was the “son of a farmer,” and had “devoted his life to public service and worked for the poor and marginalized.”

According to a recent Ipsos poll, 71 percent of Indians want Ram Nath Kovind to be president, a significant part of the population. However, in the same poll, 37 percent viewed the presidency as merely a symbolic post and 15 percent want the post abolished, believing it to be a waste of taxpayer money.

The selection of Ram Nath Kovind was a canny decision by the policy makers of the BJP, as it will probably consolidate much of their newly-gained support amongst the Dalit class. However, in this predominantly ceremonial role, it will be interesting to see whether Kovind can have a significant positive effect on the wider Dalit community.