Dalit-Label Tagged With Presidential Candidates!

The initial phase of the race for the forthcoming presidential election strongly suggests the prevalence of caste-hierarchy in India. Both the ruling party and opposition are trying their hand at playing the Dalit-card by selecting a Dalit as their respective candidate for the presidential election. Dalit is the term used for out-caste Hindus in India, who have for centuries been subject to discrimination, including untouchability. Dalit means oppressed in the old Indian language, Sanskrit. There still exist areas in India where only Dalits live. This also implies that they are still not permitted to live in colonies and/or villages inhabited by caste Hindus. In rural areas, there exist separate wells for them.

Fifty percent of the country’s Dalit population, according to 2011 census lives in four states. In Uttar Pradesh (UP), there is a total of 20.5% of their population, in West Bengal – 10.7%, Bihar – 8.2% and in Tamil Nadu – 7.2%. Dalits form around 16.6% of India’s population. The ruling party, BJP, took the initiative by announcing the name of Bihar Governor Ram Nath Kovind as the National Democratic Alliance (NDA)’s presidential candidate. He is a Dalit  and belongs to Kanpur (UP). His candidature is strongly supported by BJP’s patron, the  Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

Educationally, professionally and politically, Kovind does not reflect the discriminatory conditions faced by most Dalits across the country. A B.Com and LLB from Kanpur University, he is known as a successful lawyer. He succeeded in becoming Advocate-on-Record of the Supreme Court of India in 1978, for which the aspiring lawyers have to give a written examination, viewed as a tough one. He practiced in Delhi High Court and Supreme Court till around 1993. In April 1994, he was elected to Rajya Sabha from UP. He served as a member of the Upper House for two consecutive terms till March 2006. As a parliamentarian, he was actively engaged in several committees, including those devoted to the welfare of Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes. At a point he also served as BJP’s spokesperson. Politically, he is known as a strong Hindutva supporter. He was appointed as Governor of Bihar on August 8, 2015. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s demonetisation drive was strongly supported by him.

Considering the professional success of Kovind and his educational qualifications, it is indeed paradoxical that his selection as presidential candidate has been decided primarily by his caste. Clearly, this is just a minor, symbolic example of the importance still given in this country to the caste hierarchy. In all probability, his professional and educational background has not been given much importance in BJP’s decision to choose him as its candidate for the highest political office in the country. Despite Kovind having attained success in his professional career, prior to his having joined active politics, his identity still rests on his being a Dalit.

Of course, there is no denying that the caste-card of this nature is being played primarily for political reasons, that is next parliamentary elections. BJP is keen to attract Dalit votes by selecting a Dalit as its presidential candidate. Who knows, caste-card of this nature may help BJP return to power in 2019.

But till caste-card is made use of by political parties in the fray for exclusively political reasons, several constitutional rights guaranteed to each Indian citizen will continue to be sidelined, even ignored. This demands attention to the noise being made about Kovind being a Dalit. In essence, he is being referred to as a lower-caste Hindu. And this clearly indicates that socially he is not being considered of the same stature as that of the higher caste Hindus. Kovind’s educational and professional background indicates that he has moved ahead in life than even quite a number of high caste Hindus. Yet, socially, he is still considered as inferior in comparison to them. The same can be said about his rival in race to presidential election.

BJP has apparently played the Dalit card to ensure the support of voters of this caste in the next parliamentary elections. Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) led by Mayawati performed poorly in 2014 Lok Sabha polls. BJP is probably hopeful that usage of Dalit card will play a crucial role in further weakening the base of Mayawati in UP. It may be recalled, Mayawati exercised a cautious response to BJP’s selection of Kovind as the presidential candidate. Initially, BSP refrained from voicing a “negative” stand against Kovind. However, after Opposition parties decided to name Meira Kumar, a Dalit from Bihar, as their candidate, BSP expressed its support for her on the ground of her being more “capable and powerful” than Kovind. Professionally, educationally and politically, Kumar has a very impressive background. Yet, the Dalit-card continues to be tagged with her personality.

One is forced to deliberate on how much importance is being given to democratic, socialist and secular values laid out in the Preamble to the Indian Constitution? India still has to move in direction of ensuring equality to all citizens, irrespective of their caste, tribe, religion and other social factors. Politically and socially, seventy years after Independence this still seems a mirage!

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