His name is Ram Nath Kovind and he’s Dalit (formerly known as untouchable). You may read that he’s Dalit, viewing his election as a great sign of progress against caste oppression. Here, you say, is an example of someone from the bottom of India’s development ladder. Now, he’s the President of the world’s largest democracy.
His election is important, but it’s definitely not a sign of less caste discrimination or violence.
Here are some quick thoughts about what this means for India and Dalits.
The Indian media made a big deal about him as a Dalit. It’s true he was raised in impoverished circumstances. He mentioned his humble beginnings during his acceptance speech, but he’s quite far from that life today. Prior to his election, he was in India’s Upper House of Parliament.
While he may rightly call himself a ‘Dalit,’ he’s not a suffering Dalit, as many are. Rather he’s an educated and savvy political operator. Don’t count on him to rebuke casteism and discrimination. He’s far removed from that world.
India’s ruling party, the ultra-nationalistic Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister shrewdly put forth Kovind as a presidential candidate. With him as President, Hindutva’s (hardline Hindu mindset) government influence, increasingly strong, won’t receive opposition from the President’s office.
The BJP party brilliantly choose this man to be the President because though he’s a Dalit, he’s well indoctrinated in Hindutva’s mindsets and approaches. He espouses them himself.
But, and this is important, the BJP needs the voting block of Indian Dalits.
Their votes are especially crucial in its poorest states, like Bihar (where Kovind hails from) to continue their onslaught against religious pluralism, while enshrining Hinduism as the state religion.
Since he’s a Dalit, Dalits are reticent to fight against one of their own, even if they aren’t always of the same mind ideologically. They’ll spar in private, but are historically too downtrodden to turn against one another, denigrating someone from their sub-caste in public.
The spokesman for the BJP, Amit Shah, and Modi know this. They can rely on Kovind’s tacit ‘blessing’ of their machinations, bringing Dalit votes for BJP candidates throughout India.
Modi essentially ‘bought’ himself a large new constituency of the electorate. Even if what Hindutva stands for (Brahmin elites, anti-Muslim, anti-beef, against caste integration, etc.), starkly contrasts with many Dalit tenets, they are loath to reject him or his platform as President.
The Dalit community does not speak with a unified voice. But, Modi’s preaching on financial improvement plays well to educated, middle-class Dalits. They overlook his nationalistic rhetoric because he’s selling economic improvement of their lives.
The dynamic is similar to the conservative right in the US. They tolerated Donald Trump, despite his jingoistic drivel, leading to his presidency.
Unfortunately, Kovind’s election as President signals more rubber stamping of the BJP’s dangerous views about who is a real Indian, and what that means. Meanwhile, secularism’s death spiral continues.