This was Prime Minister Modi’s ‘statesman’ moment: he could have disregarded his ideological affinities, ignored the political underpinnings and gone down in history as the man who had an instinctive feel for the pulse of the nation.
He could have done this by giving us a so-called ‘people’s president’ — say, somebody like APJ Abdul Kalam — who could by default become the consensual choice as well as pander to the nation’s deep psychological need for a ‘neutral’ figure head.
PM Modi badly needed to extricate himself from the ideological trappings because it is beginning to undermine the agenda of development. He could easily have attempted this by changing the national narrative — by creating a catchment area in which he is not seen to be tethered to such forces.
Because this time the contest was not about individuals or about the august institution, but about giving direction to a nation that was meandering in the backwaters of cultural ‘nationalism’.
He did not really have to reinvent himself or look for a new political construct to alter the quality of the public discourse. He only had to appoint an apolitical and seemingly neutral president, ideally one without any ideological moorings, who would instil hope in a section of the population that there is life beyond Hindutva.
Indubitably, if the PM had tried to sift through his thousands of admirers in all walks of life, he would surely have stumbled over a technocrat or a person with great intellectual virtue outside the saffron ambit — someone who could uphold the dignity of the august office as well as chaperone the BJP’s political inheritors well beyond 2019.
The new occupant of Rashtrapati Bhavan —Ram Nath Kovind — is from UP and happens to be a Dalit, two great imponderables in Indian politics. Though PM Modi keeps underscoring that the BJP follows a different template, he finds it difficult to dismount the horse and keeps choreographing a familiar script — preferring handmaidens as chief ministers and now, it seems, a handpicked greying patriarch for President.
But resurrecting a senior citizen, who happens to be the Governor of Bihar — even keeping in mind his profile as a lawyer and chequered career as an MP — is not going to fire the imagination of a young nation of aspiring technocrats and professionals.
However, for Modi the public perception in Uttar Pradesh and the caste calculus is a far more important narrative that will unravel in the next general election. Having a Dalit President is a far more potent political symbol than having an all-pleasing prop at Raisina Hill.
The Dalit outreach is not just a part of Modi’s politics of persuasion but also a key ingredient in the larger RSS agenda of social engineering.
But having a Dalit Head of State will neither change the dystopian reality of the underprivileged nor the social order; nor is the student community in Hyderabad in a tearing hurry to forget the distressing suicide by the Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula; nor will the appointment erase the Dalit lynchings in Gujarat or douse the simmering fires in Saharanpur.
But PM Modi is convinced that Kovind’s appointment should assuage any residual hurt that still lingers. And that, in turn, should create the atmospherics for Modi’s proclamation as a ‘messiah’ of the Dalits; and this is possibly the new political construct BJP’s spin doctors are working on.
Of course, the prime minister could have opted for a woman or a tribal. But given the lack of gender diversity in the saffron parivar there are very few women who fit the bill, though a Sumitra Mahajan would have been as good a bet as a Pratibha Patil. Again, finding a tribal with an acceptable social profile would have been a little difficult.
Two people who could have made it by virtue of their seniority in the party were already out of contention — Murli Manohar Joshi and LK Advani. Both are on the wrong side of 80 and Advani is at least also on the wrong side of the current political dispensation.
Of course, if there was a politician of the stature of even the late Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, whose appeal transcends political fault lines, it would have made PM Modi’s job that much easier. (Shekhawat, of course, lost to Pratibha Patil.)
The BJP numbers fall short in the electoral college by a fraction; since it does not need sizeable political crutches, its poll managers should have no problem making up the deficit by co-opting some of the other stakeholders on the other side of the political divide.
For the RSS, too, this would be a cathartic moment for which it has waited since Independence.
And not just that. The Sangh parivar cannot yet fathom its good luck: By end of August, Mohammed Hamid Ansari, too, would be stepping down as vice-president. So, there is a distinct possibility that there will be a saffron Trimurti at the Centre — Modi himself, the head of the state and the obvious replacement for Ansari.
Modi’s strategies have paid dividend in the past. But the PM is nonetheless beginning to feel the overbearing weight of his politics of rhetoric and bluster. Also, the “dynamic’’, “decisive”, “no-nonsense” Modi is marginalising himself as he allows the forces of Hindutva to have an upper hand.
Maybe, a “rubber stamp” president would give him greater room to manoeuvre in a politically fluid situation.
The author is a political commentator and columnist.
He has authored four books.