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Presidential Contest

Presidential Contest

A retired Central government official once told me a story, the authenticity of which I could not verify. An upper caste person, he was in the personal staff of former deputy Prime Minister Jagjivan Ram. He told me that his boss had the “bad habit” of picking up sweetmeat like rasagulla and putting it in the plates of his guests. Since he was the host, the guests had no option but to eat it.

What he was hinting at was that Ram was practicing reverse untouchability, that is he was forcing upper caste people to eat food touched by him. Had he belonged to an upper caste like him, he would have mentioned that Ram was such a good host that he would personally serve food to his guests. What was clear to me was the caste bias of the person narrating the incident.

Jagjivan Ram was one of the most competent ministers. Whatever be the portfolio he was entrusted with — agriculture, defense or railways — he was never found wanting. I am personally convinced that if he was made the Prime Minister, in place of Morarji Desai, in 1977, the Janata Party would not have splintered and he would have completed a full term as prime minister. 

In the late seventies, I had an occasion to take part in the programme — A Day at Sea — on the occasion of the Navy Day in Bombay, now Mumbai. President N. Sanjiva Reddy, who was on INS Dunagiri, took the salute from the naval ships and submarines that passed by. Jagjivan Ram sat behind the President and the Navy chief briefed him about the vessels that took part in the programme.

Later on, the Navy Chief told us journalists that Ram knew more about the ships and the weapon systems they carried — name, the country from which they were bought etc — than he himself. The late Madhavan Kutty of the  Mathrubhoomi, a Malayalam daily, commented wryly, “How could he forget because he took commission on each of the defense purchases the country made?”

Jokes apart, one of the charges often made against him was that he did nothing for either Sasaram in Bihar from where he used to win or for the Dalit community he represented. But, then, he did not consider himself as just a Dalit leader. Rather, he considered himself as a Congress leader whose mandate did not restrict himself to working for a particular community. It was a measure of his competence that he was entrusted leadership positions, including as president of the Congress.

Why I mentioned all this is to highlight that seven decades after India became independent, it is the caste identity of the next President which is being discussed, not his or her competence. The ruling BJP discussed the need for a political consensus about the next President with the constituents of the National Democratic Alliance and the Opposition parties like the Congress without mentioning the name of its candidate.

Finally when the party unilaterally announced the name of Ram Nath Kovind as its presidential nominee, the first question that came to my mind was: Who is this gentleman? Of course, I knew that among the non-entities and obscurantists now populating the Raj Bhavans in various states was this former Bihar Governor. A little Google search revealed that he was closely identified with the  Sangh Parivar and he had been elected to the Rajya Sabha twice.

A day before his name was announced, I discussed the  names of probable candidates with Deputy Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, Prof PJ Kurien. Many names came up during our discussion but Kovind’s was not one of them. In fact, the announcement took everyone by surprise. As one newspaper speculated, only three persons knew the name and they did not include Kovind himself. They were Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his Man Friday Amit Shah and RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat.

They did not have to discuss it with Kovind because they knew that he would not oppose their decision. He is a  firm believer in the core ideology of the  Sangh Parivar. After all, which politician does not want to become the first citizen of the country? Ask LK Advani or Murli Manohar Joshi who made the cardinal mistake of protesting against Modi’s elevation as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in the 2014 elections.

Within minutes of his nomination, a friend sent me on WhatsApp a statement attributed to Kovind. Often, one comment is sufficient to understand a person. One does not have to do much research for that. 

In 2010 when the Ranganath Misra Commission recommended 15 per cent quota in government jobs for socially and economically backward sections among religious and linguistic minorities in India, it was Kovind whom the BJP fielded to oppose it. He was quoted as saying, “No, that is not possible. Including Muslims and Christians in the Scheduled Castes category will be unconstitutional."

When asked why Sikh Dalits were given quota privilege and not Muslims and Christians, he said: “Islam and Christianity are alien to the nation.” He added, “The educational level of Scheduled Caste children remains much lower than that of converted Dalits and Muslims. 

“The children of converts will grab a major share of reservation in government jobs. They would become eligible to contest elections on seats reserved for Scheduled Castes. This would encourage conversion and fatally destroy the fabric of Indian society. The Misra commission report should be scrapped because (its recommendations) will jeopardise the interests of Scheduled Castes.” Using the same logic Kovind’s caste men should be deprived of the benefits of reservation as they are far more advanced than the Jatavs, for instance.

True, Kovind was merely echoing the sentiments expressed by Guruji Golwalkar, who led the RSS for a long period after Dr KB Hedgevar’s death, in his book  Bunch of Thoughts, which the Parivar does not reprint. He is thus a strong believer in hardcore Hindutva and that is precisely why he was chosen by the party. Also, Modi does not like anyone whom he thinks he will not be able to control.

One of his qualifications is that he at one time headed the Akhil Bharatiya Koli Samaj. He is a Koli. In the caste pyramid that exists in the country, the Brahmins are at the top. Among the Brahmins also, there are different categories like, for instance, the Maithil Brahmins of North Bihar and the Namboodiri Brahmins of Kerala. They would never agree on who among the two is at the top of the caste pyramid.

Similarly, among the Scheduled Castes also, there are further classifications which may not make sense to a person like me but they are important, nevertheless. The Kolis are a community of weavers found in bigger concentration along the coasts in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh. “By virtue of their ascribed vocation, explained Dalit writer Chandrabhan Prasad, the Kolis are not “despised or hated” the way other Dalit sub-castes are. “Shaking hands with them isn’t a problem for higher castes”, he said.

Prasad’s statement is of profound significance. It explains to a large extent why the BJP chose him. It must be said to the credit of the Modi-Shah-Mohan Bhagwat combine that the party could project Kovind’s nomination as an earth-shaking event. For a couple of days the Opposition did not seem to know how to react. While Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar found an excuse that he was Bihar Governor to declare his support for Kovind, Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati hinted that she would be compelled to support him if the Opposition nominee was a non-Dalit.

Does caste identity alone matter? What has Kovind done to the Dalits? There were many incidents of atrocities committed on the Dalits. Was there even one occasion when he took an open stand? An overwhelming majority of the Dalits are non-vegetarians. They are also employed in large numbers in tanneries. The present anti-beef campaign will render many of them jobless. Has Kovind used his influence to counsel the government against adopting a foolish policy that will further pauperise the farmers who will have to feed unproductive cows and bullocks?

Political parties seem to have forgotten that KR Narayanan held the posts of Vice-President and President. He was chosen not merely because of his caste identity. He had sterling qualities of head and heart and had held many diplomatic and ministerial posts before he was elected as the First Citizen. True, the Sangh Parivar did not accept him as a Dalit. I remember a headline in the  Organizer, the mouthpiece of the RSS. It said “First Christian in Rashtrapati Bhavan”. The RSS alone knew about his baptism.

It is now touted that Kovind would be the first from UP to be elected President. Does the statehood of a person all that important? There are still many states like Odisha, Tripura, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh from where nobody has been elected President. To say that he would be the first from UP is meaningless, to say the least.

True, Kovind will get more votes than are necessary to register a victory. His nomination has already created fissures among the Opposition parties. The BJP has adopted lock, stock and barrel the British policy of divide and rule. An impression had even gained ground that even the Congress would end up supporting his candidature. Better late than ever, the Opposition has chosen Meira Kumar as its nominee.

She is the daughter of Jagjivan Ram. She was in the External Affairs Ministry before choosing politics as a career. She did well as a minister and Speaker of the Lok Sabha. That she is a woman and that she belongs to a scheduled caste make her credentials stronger than that of Kovind. Alas, there has been a dumping down of Presidency.

At one time Indian Presidents were known for their eminence. For instance, the first President Rajenda Prasad was one of the tallest leaders of the pre-Independence Congress. Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan,  who followed him, was a great philosopher while Dr Zakir Hussain was an eminent educationist. Of course, we also had mediocre like Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed and Pratibha Patil as President.

While reiterating that the Janata Dal (U) would support Kovind, Nitish Kumar has asked why the Congress did not field her as its candidate in the previous elections. He also said that she was fielded to lose, not to win. He does not understand that people contest elections, not always to win. 

Justice VR Krishna Iyer was once the Opposition candidate in a Presidential election. He knew he would lose. His only demand was that the Opposition should defray the cost of his travel and meetings with MLAs and MLCs in various state capitals. With that assurance, he started the campaign and visited every state capital to seek votes knowing full well that he had no chance at all. How truly Napoleon Bonaparte had said, “The world suffers a lot. Not because the violence of bad people. But because of the silence of the good people.”

I am glad that the Opposition has decided to give a good fight to the NDA candidate who does not know that the first mosque came up in India when the Prophet was still alive and Christianity was brought to India by one of Jesus’ own disciples. Probably, Kovind has promised that he will function as President, not as a nominee of the BJP but as the first citizen of the country.

That is certainly reassuring. The President does not enjoy much power except on rare occasions but everything in the government is done in his name. Nonetheless, he is expected to play the role of the custodian of the Constitution. It calls for wisdom, sagacity, love for the people irrespective of their political affiliation and understanding of the political complexities. Whoever wins, he or she should be able to uphold the Constitution at all times.

The writer, a senior journalist, can be reached at  ajphilip@gmail.com

(Published on 26th June 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 26)