New Delhi, June 19: The BJP today announced Bihar governor Ramnath Kovind as the NDA's presidential candidate, playing the Dalit card on the Opposition and seeking to send a message to the community within which resentment is said to be building against the party.
BJP president Amit Shah said Kovind hailed from Kanpur Dehat of Uttar Pradesh and described him as a person "from the Dalit community who has struggled to come up in life".
Shah, who was speaking after a meeting of the parliamentary board of the party, stressed the "poor and Dalit" factors many times during the announcement.
"Ramnathji had always worked for the Dalits and the backwards. Having been born in a poor family with a Dalit background, he struggled in life and today, the BJP parliamentary party has decided to make him the presidential candidate," Shah said.
The intention behind the pick, party leaders said, was clear in Shah's stress on the two words, "poor" and "Dalit".
They said the strategy behind the selection of Kovind was to checkmate the Opposition and send a message to the Dalits that the BJP stood by the deprived community.
The Opposition has called the announcement of Kovind's candidature "unilateral" and the Shiv Sena, the BJP's oldest ally, is yet to commit its support. But the NDA is said to be in control of enough votes to see its candidate through if a contest takes place.
RSS leaders privately welcomed the selection of Kovind, though the Bihar governor never had active connections with the Sangh. The RSS feels that Kovind's choice is in line with its agenda to bring "all the Hindus under one umbrella".
The Saharanpur region of Uttar Pradesh was recently rocked by caste clashes between Dalits and Thakurs. The violence was blamed on the increased upper caste dominance after the elevation of Yogi Adityanath, a Thakur, as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.
The BJP had appeared to be on the back foot with Dalit organisations such as the Bhim Army erupting in protest against the incident and branding the BJP anti-Dalit.
The protests triggered by Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula's suicide and the flogging of Dalits in Gujarat's Una too had scarred the BJP's proclaimed pro-Dalit agenda.
The selection of Kovind, party leaders said, was also inspired by a strategy to put the Opposition parties in a difficult situation. The BJP believes that it will be difficult for the Opposition to oppose Kovind's candidature.
Shah said the parliamentary board considered a host of names before deciding on the Bihar governor.
Party sources said the parliamentary board was briefed about the interactions with the Opposition and other NDA partners. Most members nodded in agreement when Prime Minister Modi, who chaired the meeting, proposed Kovind's name.
The Dalit factor was discussed at the meeting and it was agreed that the party needed to focus on the community to win their support, sources said.
The sources said that social justice minister Thawar Chand Gehlot, a Dalit from Madhya Pradesh, was also discussed but the majority of the members found Kovind a better choice since he hails from Uttar Pradesh, a state expected to play a decisive role in the 2019 general election.
"The entire Sangh parivar has agreed that we must ensure the Dalits remain intact under the larger Hindutva umbrella. The different outfits of the RSS and the BJP are working in tandem to win over the Dalits. The selection of Ramnath Kovind is a step in that direction," said a senior BJP leader closely associated with the RSS.