First up, an honest confession: I had no clue that the Modi-Shah duo were planning to make Bihar Governor Ram Nath Kovind the candidate of the ruling coalition for "Mahamahim"
(President) of India.
Neither did anyone in the media, apparently - channels were "breaking" reports of Sushma Swaraj as the choice all weekend.
Governor Kovind, 71, who comes from Kanpur, is a Dalit and therefore will expand the BJP's outreach to the community after it delivered so well in the recent Uttar Pradesh election.
The choice displays Modi and Shah's penchant for pulling off "spectacular surprises" such as the appointment of Yogi Adityanath as Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister. If elected, which is highly likely, Kovind will also be a President who Modi will be supremely comfortable with. Keep in mind that it is the new President who will swear in the next government in 2019.
The Sangh Parivar
will be delighted as this is the first time that an unabashedly loyal "saffron soldier", as an important BJP leader described him to me, will occupy Rashtrapati Bhavan. "History will come full circle as after Modi-ji
, one of our own, the former president of our Dalit morcha
, will take the top Constitutional job. This to date will be the biggest achievement of the Sangh" said the BJP General Secretary who asked not to be named.
The selection of Kovind proves that Modi and Shah do not take a moment off from 24/7 politics. From being seen as a party of the upper castes and traders, Modi and Shah have tried to re-image the BJP as embracing the entire "Hindu Samaj"
. This unification of the Hindu Samaj
has been done in tandem with the RSS and its chief Mohan Bhagwat, who had declared the year before the UP elections as devoted to Dalits.
Kovind has had two stints in the Rajya Sabha and had a small practice in the Supreme Court. He has known Modi well for decades and both share a common interest in building educational infrastructure, say sources. Kovind used to visit Modi when he was Gujarat Chief Minister. Kovind is also known to be close to union Home Minister Rajnath Singh.
Kovind's selection is also going to challenge the opposition's plans to to field a common candidate against the BJP. For example, it will be difficult for Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar who gets along reasonably well with Kovind to oppose a Dalit face. Similarly, the Samajwadi Party and Mayawati will also find it difficult to oppose a Dalit candidate who belongs to Uttar Pradesh.
The opposition, mainly the Congress and the Left, wants to cast the presidential election as a "(Gopal) Gandhi versus Godse" battle but will now find attrition in its ranks.
As an open adherent of the saffron ideology who is conversant with the constitution, Kovind is also likely to soothe the BJP's most troublesome ally, the Shiv Sena. Said a senior opposition leader, "No party with the general elections coming up will want to be seen to be opposing a Dalit candidate."
It is also unlikely now that Gopal Gandhi, former West Bengal Governor who is the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and Trinamool Congress's chief Mamta Banerjee's favoured choice, will want to enter the contest. This is likely to isolate the Congress and the Left further as they have not been able to build consensus among other parties on a suitable candidate. A name they have considered is former speaker Meira Kumar, also a Dalit and the daughter of freedom fighter Jagjivan Ram, but it's not a candidature that will set the Yamuna afire.
Modi and Shah have shrewdly ensured that they cause a strategic split in the opposition camp while getting an ideological fellow traveler into Rashtrapati Bhavan. Shah has basically stolen a leaf out of Sonia Gandhi's play book when she pulled Pratibha Patil out of her hat as the first woman president. The symbolism ensured minimum questioning and a break in the opposition ranks with the Shiv Sena voting for her because she was from Maharashtra. The appointment turned out to be mere tokenism and a questionable choice with many scandals dotting Patil's presidency.
Make no mistake: only three people knew of the choice and one of them was in Nagpur (Shah had a final consultation with Bhagwat last week). Even with the BJP's token gesture of consulting the opposition last week, Kovind's name was not revealed.
While his selection is going to cause huge heart burn among senior members of the BJP such as Murli Manohar Joshi, Ram Naik, L K Advani, it's a logical choice for the Dalit outreach and the mission of unifying "Hindu Samaj"
. If elected, Kovind will ensure that Modi has a friend in Rasthrapati Bhavan while he sets about recasting his party and the country in a saffron image.(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.