New Delhi: As the BJP parliamentary board sat down on Monday to pick its presidential candidate, a senior party leader watching from the sidelines immediately ruled out two names.
Sushma Swaraj and Thawar Chand Gehlot would not have attended the meet, he averred, were they shortlisted by PM Narendra Modi and Amit Shah.
As is their wont, both Shah and Modi lived up to their reputation of springing a surprise while taking key political decisions. But it’s not difficult to fathom why they zeroed in on yet another non-descript face for an apolitical position to send a political message.
In the end, it all boiled down to Uttar Pradesh. After having given many prime ministers to the country, UP would, if Ram Nath Kovind – current Bihar governor-- is elected, be giving India its first President; a Dalit at that.
As the meeting progressed, the fact became clearer to all present that uppermost in the minds of BJP and RSS top bosses was Uttar Pradesh in 2019.
Kovind’s candidature is designed to take the wind out of the Opposition's sails in UP for the next general elections. The BJP, a party source said, is wary of an Opposition mahagatbandhan - comprising Mayawati, Akhilesh and the Congress - happening in UP in 2019 and did not want to leave anything to chance in a state which contributed more than a fifth to its tally of 282 in the present Lok Sabha.
In UP, Mayawati's Bahujan Samajwadi Party alone has up to 22% votes. A combined kitty with the Samajwadi Party and Congress has the potential of going over 50%, taking India's most populous state out of the equation in Modi's second bid. So this proposed unity was the one BJP needed to check by wooing away the Dalit votebank.
The Dalit outreach comes at a time when the ruling party has been painted as stridently anti-Dalit. From its reactions to the suicide of Hyderabad scholar Rohith Vemula to its lack of response to the attacks on Dalits by cow vigilantes, the party over the last two years has only reinforced an image that it doesn’t care for the weakest section.
This is where the nomination of Kovind comes in as quite useful for the BJP. The 71-year-old is from Kanpur, belongs to the Dalit Koli community, has formerly led the BJP's Dalit Morcha, is low-key and has political along with gubernatorial experience - thus ticking many boxes for Modi and Shah.
Party insiders said the other name in consideration, from the RSS, was Thawar Chand Gehlot. The social justice minister is the Dalit face of the party and is a member of the parliamentary board as well. But unlike Kovind who comes from UP, Gehlot is from Madhya Pradesh.
There is another reason why the selection of Kovind is politically astute. A Dalit candidate will makes it difficult for allies and Opposition parties, including the Congress, to go all out against the BJP pick. Something similar to the situation the BJP faced when Congress chose K R Narayanan in 1997 and he walked into the Rashtrapati Bhavan with an unprecedented majority.