Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s brand of Hindu nationalism got a boost Thursday when Ram Nath Kovind, a low-caste politician backed by Modi’s conservative religious faction, was elected the country’s president with 65 percent of the votes cast by an electoral college. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) believes that India is an inherently Hindu country with no obligation to embrace the plurality of ethnicities, religions, and cultures present on the subcontinent (the country is about 80 percent Hindu). This ideology has been blamed for inciting mob rule and deadly vigilante violence across the country, particularly against Muslims and members of Hinduism’s lowest castes.
Kovind’s win solidifies a BJP political triumvirate — PM, president, and vice-president – bringing the party closer to cementing political dominance in the world’s largest democracy. The BJP has made an effort over the last decade to broaden its appeal among India’s marginalized communities, who have historically been reluctant to align themselves with groups that use religious orthodoxy to justify maintaining India’s hierarchal caste-based society. That’s why the party’s choice of Kovind, a BJP member who hails from the caste system’s lowest rung, is regarded as a savvy political move aimed at courting this bloc. “Many pragmatists recognize that the BJP cannot dominate politics… unless it diversifies its appeal,” said Milan Vaishnav, director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Modi, who pioneered the use of social media campaigning in India and has the second-largest Twitter following of any head of state (after Donald Trump), took to the platform following Kovind’s June nomination, praising his party’s candidate as a “strong voice for the poor, downtrodden & marginalised.”
But experts say Kovind’s presidency isn’t an example of a low-caste politician rising to power as a champion of the oppressed. Instead, it will entrench the BJP’s Hindutva — literally, Hindu-ness — ideology at the highest levels of government. Kovind is of the low Dalit caste, also known as “Untouchables.” India’s 1947 constitution included provisions aimed at incorporating them into modern, multicultural Indian life through a series of affirmative action programs. But deep-seated ideology is hard to shake, and protections have done little to fully empower Dalits, who remain among the country’s most disadvantaged people. “Selecting Kovind does not mean that Dalits will now vote for the BJP en masse, but it does offer Dalits a tangible victory that Modi can claim credit for delivering,” Vaishnav said.
Before his nomination to the five-year post, Kovind was governor of Bihar state, one of the least developed in India. He joined the BJP in 1991, one of the first low-caste leaders to do so, and kicked off his term as the party’s national spokesperson with controversial comments, including once saying that “Islam and Christianity are alien” to India. And even as the BJP makes a play to project inclusivity, caste-based violence is roiling India’s largest state while party leaders stay silent. In March, Yogi Adityanath, a hardline Hindu cleric, became Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous, and most politically powerful state. Yogi, as he is affectionately called by his followers, is known for incendiary statements and sometimes turning to violence to advance his agenda of Hindu purity. Since early May, the city of Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh has been rocked by violent clashes between Dalits and upper-caste Hindus, and Yogi has been criticized for his perceived indifference to the riots.
On Tuesday, Mayawati, a prominent politician and advocate for Dalits, resigned from Parliament after she was barred from speaking out about alleged atrocities against Dalits during the bloody sectarian conflict in Saharanpur. “Casteism and capitalism” have expanded across India since the BJP took power, Mayawati said. On Sunday, Sonia Gandhi, opposition leader and head of the Congress party, implored the presidential electors for a “conscience vote” that never came. The election, she said, represented a “clash of ideals, a conflict of disparate values.”