Choosing Kovind as their presidential candidate was a more natural choice for the Sangh parivar

Where does Ram Nath Kovind stand on issues related to prevalent caste discrimination against Dalits? This is a question that many have asked since the Dalit leader, a former parliamentarian and the current governor of Bihar, was nominated by the BJP as its presidential candidate.

A report by US embassy interlocutors titled Socioeconomic future of Indian dalits remains bleak, published by WikiLeaks, which analyses the issues of discrimination on the basis of various theories, makes Kovind’s positions clear.

The 2005 document shows that Kovind toed the the Sangh parivar’s political line, which prefers reforms in the caste hierarchy as entrenched in the Hindu puranic system, instead of a complete annihilation of caste as advocated by Indian leaders like B.R. Ambedkar.

Kovind, then the BJP’s Scheduled Caste Morcha’s chief, made it a point to disagree with S.K. Thorat, former UGC chairman and Dalit intellectual, and Udit Raj, then an independent Dalit leader and who is currently with the BJP.

Contradicting Thorat’s arguments, which were based on statistical observations, that wide-spread discrimination against Dalits persists in rural India, Kovind said that the practice has decreased considerably and even hiring personnel is usually free of caste prejudices.

“Ram Nath Kovind, himself a dalit and a BJP MP from UP, expressed a more positive view to Poloff (reference to the unnamed political officer in the US embassy) recently, stating that “open” discrimination against dalits has decreased dramatically over the last decade, while the number of persons who genuinely care about helping dalits has increased. He maintained that while discrimination persists in the housing sector, employment decisions are usually free from bias,” the document said.

While Thorat was of the view that the system of quota was only “partially successful” and that discrimination in private sector where he believed that “high-caste Hindus would almost always hire another caste Hindu over a dalit, even if the dalit was fully qualified for the job”; Kovind disagreed with him. He said that reservation “has to a large degree been successful in protecting dalit rights and advocated “primary education as a place to start the end of discrimination.”

It may be noted that while most Dalit intellectuals would not disagree with concentrating on reforming primary education to end discrimination, most anti-reservation ideologues, especially in the Sangh parivar, see the measure as replacement for the reservation policy, and not as complimenting it.

While countering Thorat’s argument that only 5% Dalits have benefitted from the Indian reservation law and most others are still languishing in low-paying, unskilled jobs because of the caste system, Kovind said that “the true basis of discrimination is economic in nature rather than caste-based, as the haves discriminate against the have nots and use the caste system to perpetuate differences between economic groups.”

“Comparing the caste system to the trade guilds in feudal Europe (in that certain groups performed specific jobs), he added that under the caste system, persons acquire their trade at birth, while the guilds allowed job mobility. Caste factors are now used to protect jobs and livelihoods more than anything else,” the document quoted Kovind as saying.
Kovind’s arguments clearly mirror what the Sangh parivar has been saying for many years now. One may recall that Mohan Bhagwat, RSS sarsanghchalak, in 2010 had stirred a political controversy when he had advocated that economic background, and not caste, should be the basis of reservation system.

Interestingly, while Raj concurred with Thorat’s viewpoints that the private sector will continue to discriminate against Dalits and advanced the idea of an equal opportunity law in the private sector like in the US, Kovind put forward an apologetic reason to the “poloff”, contending that “…since the Hindu religion condones caste, it will take longer for the GOI to end caste discrimination in India than it will take to eradicate racial discrimination in the US.”

He also predicted that caste-based discrimination will exist for at least 50-100 years in India.

Kovind, in fact, came across as much softer in front of Sangh Priya Gautam, then a Dalit BJP MP from UP. While Gautam said that an equal opportunity law in private sector would “be an important tool to ensure equality,” Kovind desisted from demanding such a legislation, staying true to his pliant, soft image. However, when it came to his party allegiance, Kovind was quite vehement about projecting BJP as the only party that will “help” Dalits.

Differing with Thorat and Raj who felt there is a greater need for Dalits to build political platforms and organisations, Kovind asserted, “BJP is determined to help dalits and shed the image that it is only an upper caste party.”

The document further notes, “(Kovind) argued that only a nationalist party like the BJP will succeed in fighting discrimination against dalits, as India cannot become a world power until dalits and low-caste persons are brought up to the level of the rest of society.”

Both the BJP and its ideological parent, the RSS, have projected the decision to nominate Kovind for the country’s top constitutional post as a big step forward by the saffron forces towards a more socially inclusive strategy. However, given Kovind’s views on social justice and empowerment, choosing a loyal, conformist leader like him was much more of a natural choice for the Sangh parivar than any radical shift in its traditional position on the caste system.

At the present political juncture, where opposition from Dalit forces against the saffron forces is on a rise, the BJP’s decision to represent Kovind for the post of president looks largely ceremonial, much like the post itself.