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February 18, 1998


Campaign Trail/ V Ram

Kanshi Ram's tirade finds many takers in Nagpur

A modest crowd of about one thousand waited patiently late into the evening on Tuesday, at the Chindiramani grounds in south Nagpur. The magnet that kept them there being the prospect of watching, and listening to, Bahujan Samaj Party president Kanshi Ram, on a one-day whistle-stop tour of the Vidharbha and Marathawada regions of Maharashtra.

Interestingly, unlike in the earlier meetings that featured BJP and Congress leaders where the discussions were mostly centered around personalities, here I find groups of young men heatedly arguing the pros and cons of the Dalit movement.

To say that the Republican Party of India in Maharashtra is faction-ridden would be to understate the case -- the party needed nothing less than a high court to set up a panel of leaders who could in turn decide on the nomination of candidates for the election. And all this drama for a mere four seats the party, which is allied with the Congress this time, is contesting in the state.

Scoffs a young BSP activist, "There are about 200,000 Dalit votes in each constituency in the state, and so the RPI has bargained away a total of about 6 million votes for four measly seats!"

Chips in another: "Every election, the RPI votes go to the Congress -- but in places where an RPI candidate is contesting, the reverse never happens!"

The BSP, thus, is perceived to have done more for the Dalits than the RPI ever has. "Our Deekshabhumi for Babasaheb Ambedkar only cost about Rs 10 million, while the Ambedkar Park in Lucknow costs Rs 100 million," says a third youth.

Such digs are not taken in silence. "Kanshi Ram doesn't even refer to our leader by his full name (which, in Dalit lexicon, goes 'Bharat Ratna Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar'), why should we entertain him here? Besides, the RPI is the stronger Dalit party here, the BSP should have recognised it and not put up a candidate here," says an RPI worker.

The younger members of the audience adhere to the view that the BSP's foray into Maharashtra is a good thing, calculated in time to unite all the Dalit votes. "Who is afraid of the RPI?" argues one youngster. "It is the BSP that is feared and wooed by the national parties -- the BJP and the Congress. The future is with the BSP."

The BSP is certainly the more confident of the two Dalit outfits -- thus, while the RPI contests four seats in the state, the BSP is contesting 27 and, what is more, is expected to capture a good 10 to 15 per cent of the Dalit votes.

In Nagpur, state BSP president Siddharth Patil contests the election for the third time, and the general reading is that he will get between 50,000 and 70,000 votes of the 300,000 Dalit votes on offer in the constituency.

Kanshi Ram lands, an hour behind schedule. And the inevitable slogans are yelled out with fervour: Baba ka hathi aya hai, BSP ne laya hai (the symbol of Baba Ambedkar, the elephant, is here, brought by the BSP) and Vote hamara raj tumhara, Nahin chalega, nahin chalega.

The BSP leader has only one gear -- high. And he hit it running, launching into a vitriolic attack on the RPI, and on the Dalits in general, for their "incompetence", as seen in the complete failure to advance the movement in the state.

Although B R Ambedkar was from Maharashtra, Kanshi Ram harangues, the people of this state have done nothing to realise his dreams. Ambedkar, Kanshi Ram reminds his audience, had once asked the people to go write on their walls, 'We should empower ourselves to run the government', and had also advised that political power was the real master key to bringing about social change -- so what were the Dalits in the state doing with that advice?"

Nothing, thunders the BSP chief, replying to his own rhetoric.

The leitmotif is simple and direct -- the Dalit cause has been hampered by weak, spineless leadership. Thus, the advantage of numbers has been frittered away.

The corollary? Unstated, but obvious -- the Dalits need a strong leader, and I am it!

Kanshi Ram argues that the Dalits have allowed themselves to fall for the classic divide-and-rule policy -- with the result that the community, which comprises 85 per cent of the national population (we are quoting Kanshi Ram, not the national census, here) has allowed the 15 per cent upper caste population to rule it.

Having stoked the fires, Kanshi Ram proceeds to add promising fuel, to turn it into a BSP blaze. ''The BSP,'' he thunders, ''aims to reverse all that, the BSP's goal is socio-economic power for the Dalits no more no less, in contrast to Ambedkar's RPI that plays perpetual second fiddle to the Congress, the BSP, in 1996, aligned with the Congress in the 1996 assembly election in UP only on condition that it would be the senior partner, contesting 300 seats while the Congress got a mere 125.''

The performance is somewhat akin to an iron-pumper showing off his lumpy biceps to admiring oohs and aahs -- which Kanshi Ram elicits from the crowd in ample measure.

Kanshi Ram rubs the point home when he says that the BSP has, in time, increased its vote share from 2 per cent to 21 per cent in UP. And no prizes for guessing at whose expense -- the Congress, he says, has in the same period found its vote share dropping from 42 per cent to 8 per cent.

Thus, Kanshi Ram says, bringing his oration to a thunderous climax, this time round the BSP feels strong enough to contest all 85 seats in UP on its own, sans any outside support. The party, he thunders, has held power twice, in the most politically crucial state in the country -- and this time, the BSP is poised to hold the key to power at the Centre.

Substance of the message? Vote BSP now -- because it is an investment in your future.

Judging by the reaction, it is a message that has many takers.

Campaign Trail

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