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View: Kovind is not another Kalam, BJP's symbol backed with substance

Ram Nath Kovind's election may be purely symbolic for a BJP trying to please lower castes, but it is not empty symbolism devoid of substance.

, ET Online|
Jul 20, 2017, 08.24 PM IST
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Kovind's election comes after concrete measures Modi and the BJP have taken to turn towards lower castes.
Kovind's election comes after concrete measures Modi and the BJP have taken to turn towards lower castes.
NEW DELHI: That the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — a right-wing, Hindu nationalist party seen to represent mostly upper-castes — faced an ideological makeover was clear right after its victory in the Lok Sabha election in 2014. Prime Minister Narendra Modi began his first victory speech in Vadodara by expressing gratitude to Dalit leader BR Ambedkar, who was not an essential part of the BJP's iconography. With the election of Ram Nath Kovind as President of India, that makeover is complete. The BJP is no longer the 'Baniya-Brahmin party' as it had been seen for long. It is now a party of lower castes and the poor as well, if you consider Prime Minister Modi's gestures, policies and a string of electoral victories.

Kovind's election may be purely symbolic for a BJP trying to please lower castes, but it is not empty symbolism devoid of substance. It comes after concrete measures PM Modi and the BJP have taken to turn towards lower castes.

The first such measure was open embrace of Ambedkar by the BJP's ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), even before the party came to power in 2014. It was the beginning of a slow ideological turn the Sangh Parivar is making towards secular politics. Now the opposition parties are worried that the BJP might end up appropriating the icon that most of them have used to corner lower-caste votes. The sweeping victory of the BJP in the Uttar Pradesh elections a few months ago indeed proved that the party had gained strong support of lower castes which traditionally supported anti-BJP parties in most elections.

The BJP's love for Ambedkar — and even Mahatama Gandhi whom PM Modi has made a mascot for his Swachh Bharat Mission — is buttressed by Modi's policy initiatives. Most of his schemes, such as the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana which provides LPG connections to poor women, Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojna and Stand Up India, are targeted at lower castes. His aggressive welfare politics has even been termed as imitation of the previous UPA governments run by a socialist Congress party and assorted left and regional parties. And he has done little that can be seen by the masses as favouring upper castes or big business.

Since PM Modi himself comes from a lower caste, it became easy for him to turn his party around to inclusive politics. His symbolic Dalit politics becomes credible due to his own background.

The last time the BJP chose a President, it was nothing more than symbolic. Election of APJ Abdul Kalam as President during the Atal Behari Vajpayee government did not accompany any efforts by the BJP to move towards Muslim voters. But Kovind's presidency comes on the back of substantial pro-Dalit moves by the Narendra Modi government.

That's why there is more to Kovind's election than just symbolism. It heralds a new age for the BJP when lower castes — Dalits as well OBCs — would emerge as a big power centre in a party hitherto dominated by upper castes.

Kovind is a symbol mounted on the BJP's concrete pro-Dalit politics and governance. A symbol that speaks of the advances the party has already made towards caste politics and the way that lies ahead.

Just 10 years ago, no one could imagine a BJP-led government with a Dalit as President and an OBC as Prime Minister. Ten years later, the BJP might spring surprises we can't imagine today.

Views expressed here are the author's own, and not Economictimes.com's
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