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'BJP may get an upper hand as far as Dalit votes are concerned'

By Jyoti Punwani
Last updated on: June 19, 2015 00:47 IST
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'It is difficult to imagine the BJP becoming the legatee of Ambedkar. Whichever way one looks at it, Ambedkar's thought and Hindu nationalism are not easy to reconcile.'

Professor Suhas Palshikar discusses the attempts by the BJP and the Congress to appropriate Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar's legacy.

Since April 14, the 124th birth anniversary of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress are competing with each other to announce a series of measures to commemorate his memory.

The Dalit vote in Bihar (15 per cent), and UP (21 per cent), two important states where assembly elections are due soon, is obviously one factor. But have the two parties ever followed Dr Ambedkar's thought?

Professor Suhas Palshikar, below, left, teaches politics and public administration at the Savitribai Phule Pune University, and is also director of the research programme Lokniti, famous for its analysis of voting patterns.

Professor Palshikar discusses the issue with Jyoti Punwani.

Why are the Congress and BJP both trying to appropriate Dr Ambedkar?

Both realise that Ambedkar happens to be a crucial symbol and icon for Dalits across the country and also a symbol of a progressive, anti-caste position. In view of situating themselves as anti-caste and to win over Dalit votes, the two parties believe that they need to be seen as pro-Ambedkar.

Hence efforts by both parties to appropriate Ambedkar. This also ensures that the Bahujan Samaj Party will be kept under control and its interpretation of what Ambedkar stands for can be sidetracked.

Which one will succeed, if any? Why?

The BJP is presently in a position to shape the cultural and intellectual agenda. Hence, in the coming decade, the BJP may get an upper hand as far as Dalit votes are concerned. More importantly, the BJP may also succeed in presenting Ambedkar differently from how he has been so far understood.

The public perception of Ambedkar -- not just among Dalits -- would undergo a change and a less radical and more acceptable-to-mainstream image of Ambedkar would be popularised.

Professor Suhas Palshikar What is the credibility of both parties vis-a-vis Ambedkar and vis-a-vis his followers?

While BSP founder Kanshi Ram powerfully dented the credibility of the Congress among Dalit voters, the Congress too always depended upon only some sections among the Dalits. The Congress also never came up with any cogent approach to Ambedkar's ideas and relied on the image rather than the ideas. Among Ambedkar's followers, and Dalits more generally, the BJP fared less compared to the Congress.

But in many states, Dalits have long been in search of alternative political vehicles. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are the more known instances of this; but Andhra Pradesh too, is a state where the Dalits have often tended to vote for non-establishment parties or groups. Among the Dalits of Karnataka also, this trend is evident.

So the Congress may get 'more' votes among Dalits compared to most other parties, but it certainly ceased to have a sway among the Dalits of all states since the mid-1970s.

The Congress has an old history of alliances with the Republican Party of India or one of its factions in Maharashtra. Do you think they know how to win over Dalits? Will this help them in their attempt to own Ambedkar?

In many states, the Congress used to get Dalit votes directly and not through alliance with a Dalit party. But the rise of the BSP and emergence of consciousness among Dalits have meant that the Congress cannot take Dalit votes for granted.

To claim to own Ambedkar, the Congress would require an intellectual leadership that would have to be far too sophisticated and determined. To win Dalit votes, it would require a more tenacious politics, besides a determination to keep its middle-caste activists under check.

The Congress keeps repeating that Ambedkar was part of the Congress dhara. How true is that?

This claim on the one hand sounds odd because Ambedkar kept opposing the Congress even after Independence. However, the statement may have some element of truth in the context of the BJP. Compared to the BJP, Ambedkar's views on secularism, diversity/accommodation, etc would be certainly more approximating the Congress' views.

Professor Kancha Ilaiah says that while the Congress has a history with Dalits, the BJP has none, and is trying to build such a history from scratch. Is that correct?

Not entirely -- because Ambedkar was critical of Hindu nationalism and the Hindutva politics of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and Veer Savarkar was critical of Ambedkar for his 'conversion'. So, the history of the Ambedkar-BJP relationship does have a basis in tension, suspicion and mutual antagonism.

Notwithstanding Hindutva, will the shift in Dalit vote to the BJP in last year's Lok Sabha elections help the BJP get regarded as the true heir of Ambedkar? They do have more Dalit MPs than the Congress.

In the first place, the BJP may not continue to get strong support among Dalit voters in the future. In UP it did not get much support among Dalits in 2014 too. But going beyond votes, it is difficult to imagine the BJP becoming the legatee of Ambedkar. Whichever way one looks at it, Ambedkar's thought and Hindu nationalism are not easy to reconcile.

What are the fundamental contradictions between the Congress and the BJP vis-a-vis Ambedkar's views? And will these be apparent to Dalit voters in Bihar and UP? Will that be a factor at all for Dalits?

No, for the voters, assurances of identity, safety and material improvement are key considerations and they would normally vote keeping in view these considerations rather than choosing parties or candidates in an academic or theoretical manner. 

Voters are less directly interested in how a party 'interprets' a particular thinker or person. Such debates take a long time to seep into public discourse and that too, only when there are strong political vehicles for that.

The Congress has not been much interested in absorbing the radical legacy of Ambedkar. It however, historically became the party to which Dalits would vote. Indira Gandhi in particular built this solid Dalit support base for the Congress (along with other weaker sections). In Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh respectively, Madhav Singh Solanki and Digvijaya Singh tried to recapture that base (Gujarat in the 1980s and MP in the 1990s).

But the deeper dilemma for the Congress since the 1970s has been to reconcile Dalit interests with Other Backward Class interests. For both the BJP and the Congress, then, Bihar and UP become tough terrains because in both states, they would need to balance the interests and identity claims of these two social sections. 

The BJP has interpreted Ambedkar's thought as ‘samarasta’ (harmony). How far is this a deviation from Ambedkar's thoughts?

Elsewhere, I have described this as misappropriation of Ambedkar. Since the 1980s, RSS and Hindutva forces have systematically attempted to present themselves as friendly with Dalit interests and therefore, claimed that Ambedkar was a Hindu social reformer who was primarily interested in reforming Hindu society and ridding it of caste inequalities.

Second, they claimed that Amebdkar was cautious about Muslims and Islam and this was indicative that he would not have much objection to a Hindu nationalist perspective. These were misrepresentations. One can surely claim to adopt Ambedkar as their icon, but that can be done only within the larger space of the ideas that Ambedkar was consistently presenting.

Since the Hindutva forces instead choose to write their own Ambedkar-thought, their exercise becomes more inimical to the Amebdkarite project than what the Congress has done or may do.

Do you think the BJP view of Ambedkar will prevail, given their skill at propaganda & their control over education as well as official media? Will that be dangerous in the long term? According to Ilaiah, taking Ambedkar to ‘upper-caste’ homes will be exciting. What do you feel?

The overall political and polemical ascendance of the BJP and its capacity to intervene in key cultural debates compared to the Congress, may result in the BJP view gaining currency. However, I am not sure I understand why Kancha thinks taking Ambedkar to upper caste homes would be 'exciting'.

One, the BJP does not intend to take Ambedkar to upper-caste homes, it intends to take its Hindutva to Dalit households. Two, a diluted, non-radical version of Ambedkar is hardly likely to threaten the upper-caste world view.

Does any party come close to representing Ambedkar's views?

No! It is, of course, difficult for parties to represent any one strand of thinking given the more general and catch-all character of most parties. Also representing Ambedkar is a complex exercise, because Ambedkar himself underwent various transformations in terms of practical politics.

Also, representing any one intellectual/political actor has a limitation in that such persons may have grown in their thinking and the task of identifying what constitutes the 'core' of such a person's thinking can always be disputed.

Having said that, today's RPI groups are incapable of representing Ambedkar because Ambedkar's politics (be it of the Independent Labour Party or of the Republican Party, both of which he founded), was not confined to any one community.

One core of his politics was an anti-caste position, but if we extend that further -- which he indeed wanted to -- then it related to larger issues of social justice and inclusive democracy. Any party wanting to represent Ambedkar would have the tough task of representing his 'immediate' political concerns and also the more long term and deeper concerns that he held. 

Image: Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the foundation stone laying ceremony for the Dr Ambedkar International Centre in New Delhi, April 20. Photograph: Press Information Bureau

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Jyoti Punwani