Putting to rest all speculations, the BJP on Monday announced Dalit leader and current Bihar Governor Ram Nath Kovind as its presidential candidate for the July 17 election to succeed incumbent President Pranab Mukherjee.
BJP president Amit Shah, who had earlier hinted that the party’s presidential and vice-presidential candidates would hail from the Dalit and Tribal communities, announced the candidature of 71-year-old Kovind, after the party’s parliamentary board meeting that was attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
A two-time Rajya Sabha member continuously from 1994 to 2006, Kovind was appointed Bihar Governor on August 2015. An advocate by profession, he has also served as the party’s national spokesperson.
Interestingly, Kovind was president of the BJP Dalit Morcha from 1998 to 2002 when Narendra Modi was also the BJP’s general secretary (organisation). And, Kovind is said to have been in the good books of Modi since then.
The BJP’s strategy, according to sources, is three-fold. First, the move is seen as trying to placate the Dalit community which has been at the receiving end, especially in BJP-ruled states—from the Dalit beatings in Gujarat to the Saharanpur caste clashes in Uttar Pradesh. Apart from the move helping salvage the BJP’s image of a party leaning towards the higher castes, it is hoped to reap dividends in all the state elections in the run-up to the 2019 general elections.
Second, the announcement of a Dalit candidate does steamroll the apparent demand from a growing section within the BJP on making party veteran LK Advani the candidate. It is said in BJP circles that PM Modi has not been keen on sending his mentor to the Rashtrapati Bhavan. And, the CBI’s recent filing of charges against Advani and others in the Babri Masjid case was sort of an indication of Advani’s evaporating chances.
Last but certainly not the least, with the ruling NDA alliance falling short of a majority in the electoral college, the party hopes to put many Opposition leaders in a spot. For instance, leaders from Bahujan Samaj Party supremo Mayawati would find it very hard not to support a Dalit candidate; so would Lalu Prasad Yadav or Nitish Kumar for that matter. In fact, the ‘Dalit factor’ is hoped to swing fence-sitters to the BJP’s side.
Amit Shah mentioned in his press conference that PM Modi has already spoken to Congress president Sonia Gandhi and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the matter.
While the Opposition leaders haven’t named their candidate, or revealed their strategy yet, their next move would be keenly watched.
With the presidential election being a secret ballot, the contest is likely to get more interesting if the Opposition puts up its own candidate. Depending on who the Opposition’s candidate is, even if many small parties publicly support the BJP’s candidate in the coming days, it has to be seen how that translates into votes when the results are announced on July 20.