The Discovery of BR Ambedkar
In search of a large support base, parties are latching onto the architect of Indian Constitution
New Delhi: Few eyebrows were raised when cricketers Sachin Tendulkar and Ajinkya Rahane earlier this month inaugurated a stadiumnamedafterBhimRaoAmbedkar in veteran politician and former International Cricket Council chairman Sharad Pawar’s home turf Baramati. Ambedkar may not have had much to do with cricket, but over the past year politicians of all hues have been rushing to be seen to be payingobeisancetotheDaliticonand architectof theConstitutionof India. From PM Modi to Congress V-P Rahul Gandhi and NCP chief Pawar to JNU students’ union president Kanhaiya Kumar, established and aspiring leaders are competing with each other to shower encomiums on the man they believe will help them forgeawinningbondwithalargesectionof theelectorate.Ambedkarwas the common link among activist students affiliated to the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle at IIT Madras lastyearandtheAmbedkarStudents Association at Hyderabad Central University this year. Kumar, after his release from jail in a sedition case, used the symbolism of colours of his mealbowls—redandblue—toadvocate convergence between communists,whofighteconomicoppression, and Ambedkarites, who campaign against social oppression of Dalits.
Formuchof thepastyear,abattleof one-upmanship has been raging between the ruling BJP and opposition Congress over Ambedkar’s legacy. When Modi decided to pay special att e nt i on to pre parations for Ambedkar’s 125th birth anniversary celebrations and constituted a committee for the purpose, the Congress respondedbysettingupitsownpanel chairedbypartychief SoniaGandhi.
Since then Modi has participated in 10 events directly related to Ambedkar through the year, while Rahul has participated in two big eve n t s — f i r s t by v i s i t i n g Ambedkar’s birthplace Mhow in MP in June last year and later at the culmination of Congress’ celebrations at Nagpur on April 11 this year. “Ambedkar and the Congress were the first to refute Manu’s ideology by making the Constitution. Ambedkar faced discrimination because of this ideology. But the RSS and BJP support this ideology and work to strengthen it,” Rahul said at a Congress rally in Nagpur.
Modi, on his part, has accused the Congress of not standing with Ambedkar when he resigned from Jawaharlal Nehru’s Cabinet over Hindu Code Bill. On Thursday, Modi launched a veiled attack at the Congress for ignoring Ambedkar. Speaking at a function in Mhow, he said: “Several governments came, but we got the honour to build a memorial for Ambedkar. Did we stop anybody from building one for 60 years? When we are honouring Ambedkar, you are crying hoarse.”
Sonia had earlier sought to highlightthatitwastheCongressthatput Ambedkar in charge of drafting the Constitution. But it has had an uneasy relationship with Ambedkar’s legacy. While Nehru had inducted Ambedkar in his first government at the insistence of Mahatma Gandhi, they parted ways later. The Congress appeared more comfortable with its ownDalitleaderBabuJagjivanRam, whodidn’tdesertIndiraGandhieven when the old guard rebelled against her in 1969. But the Janata Party got RamintoitsfoldasdeputyPM,aware as it was of the need to woo Dalits for its anti-Indira electioneering. Weaning Dalits away from the Congress has always been one of the principal strategies of any political formation that has sought to replace it. Pawar was the one to try this for the first time when he broke away from the Congress and formed his government in Maharashtra in the late 1970s. Pawar, during his first term as CM is credited with getting Maharashtra assembly to compile theworksof Ambedkarinoneplace.
After Ram’s demise in late ’80s, the Janata Dal government lost little timetowooDalits. WhileseveralfactionsinMaharashtrafoughttoclaim Ambedkar’s legacy, it was the VP Singh-led Janata Dal government that set the ball in motion a competition to appropriate Ambedkar in the Hindi heartland. In 1990, the Singh governmenthadmadeitsownclaim on the legacy by awarding Bharat Ratna to Ambedkar posthumously. SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav, too, tried to wean away Dalits from the Congress in UP. In his first term as CM, he got the road in front of the U P a s s e mbl y n a med a f t e r Ambedkar. But Yadav proved little match for the aggressive Dalit politics of BSP leaders Kanshiram and Mayawatiinthestate.Inotherstates, the Dalits continued to constitute a more contested support base.
WhentheBJPwasslowlyemerging as national alternative after the JanataDal,ittootriedtoendearitself totheDalits.Itwaswiththisobjective in mind that the party’s ideological mentor, RSS, prevailed on its leadershipinthe1990stogoinforapost-poll alliance with the BSP in UP. With the BSP growing stronger with every shot at power, the BJP had little option but to reach out to the community itself. While journalist-turned-politician Arun Shourie, who was minister in the first BJP-led government at the Centre, criticised Ambedkar in his book ‘Worshipping FalseGods’,theRSSdidnotsubscribe to his view. In early 2000s, RSS’ Dattopant Thengadi criticised Shourie’s critique of Ambedkar.
WiththeBJPseekingtoconsolidate its position after Modi propelled it to majority in 2014, it appears to have latched onto Ambedkar to provide it with a large enough support base, forcing its rivals to compete vigorously for the same slice of the pie.