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Scramble for Ambedkar’s legacy

Scramble for Ambedkar’s legacy
Dalit icon Bhim Rao Ambedkar is the flavour of this year as political parties are competing with each other for the Dalit votes which are up for grabs. For the first time, obviously with the Modi government’s efforts, the United Nations observed the Dalit icon’s 125th birth anniversary showcasing his universal appeal on Wednesday, on the eve of his birth anniversary.  Prime Minister Modi himself paid homage to the departed leader at his birthplace in Mhow to observe social harmony day. To claim Ambedkar’s legacy, the Congress, too, organised a big rally in Nagpur on Monday.

The two big national parties - the BJP and the Congress are going all out to woo the Dalits for their electoral gains. It was Prime Minister Modi who laid the foundation stone of Ambedkar memorial in Mumbai last year and also initiated the process for Parliament to observe the Constitution Day on November 28, 2015, to spread awareness about Dr Ambedkar. The Congress is looking to regain its lost Dalit support while the BJP is looking for space to improve its Bania-Brahmin party image. Both announced yearlong celebrations last year running up to April 14, 2016. 

On his birth and death anniversaries, political parties make a beeline to Mumbai to pay respects to the memory of Ambedkar.  Both the national parties had announced a yearlong plan to celebrate the 125th year of Ambedkar’s birth. All this when reports come from all corners of the country about Dalit oppression. The recent death of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula is a classic example of their status in the country. Vemula’s suicide note not only powerfully portrays the alienation of the Dalits and raises doubts about the BJP’s ability to consolidate a pan-India vote that cuts across communities.

Till the 1990s, Ambedkar was not treated as a national icon by these mainstream parties. It was only after the VP Singh government awarded Bharat Ratna for him and also implemented Mandal commission report as also the rise of the identity-based political parties like the BSP that made the national parties wake up and claim his legacy. With the splintered polity the political parties had realised that they need social engineering. The irony is that Ambedkar was neither close to the Congress or the Hindu Mahasabha during his lifetime. He was critical of Mahatma Gandhi and the rightwing was critical of him when he tried to modernise the Hindu law in 1951.

But now things have changed. The Congress which had their support earlier is trying to get the Dalits back in its fold while the BJP, looking for new icons and new leaders has chosen to adopt Ambedkar. For the Congress, there was a time when it had leaders like Babu Jagjivan Ram were seen as tall Dalit leaders. The BJP too does not have many Dalit leaders. It promoted Bangaru Laxman who became the party chief but he got bogged down with a corruption case.

The two parties are now trying to develop programmes to woo the Dalits. The RSS, for instance, has declared a programme based on the slogan “one temple, one well, one cemetery” to end discrimination in villages. The Congress too has come up with a systematic approach claiming ownership of Ambedkar. Their plan includes creating jobs for the Dalits in the private sector.  The party’s focus in on urban middle-class Dalits.

It is a question of how far these two parties will succeed in competing with the parties born of identity politics.  Now there is a clear shift from identity politics to aspirational politics. Dalits are no longer voting only on the basis of identity as the 2014 polls had shown when the Dalits supported Narendra Modi. The BJP had won 40 of the 84 seats reserved for scheduled castes. The BJP’s vote share among Dalits doubled from 12 percent to 24 percent. It is because of the growth of the Dalit middle class, increasing Dalit assertion and also Dalit empowerment. The BJP would not have won Maharashtra and Haryana without the Dalit support. The BJP has surpassed both the Congress and the BSP in attracting a larger share of Dalit vote.

The recent shift among Dalit voters towards the BJP was mainly due to two reasons. The first was its tactical move of the pre-electoral alliance with parties like the Lok Jan Shakti, Republican Party of India (Athawale) and Udit Raj. The second was the rising Dalit aspirations who trusted Modi. However, it is not sure whether this support to the saffron party will continue or not. The Dalits now realise that they can be empowered and are looking to those parties, which can do so.

Secondly, although the BSP did not get a single seat, its vote share did not fall too much. The BSP lost a substantial portion of their vote base to the BJP in UP, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra and in Delhi. Mayawati lost because her social engineering had not continued and the other castes, which supported her overwhelmingly deserted her. Being a fighter, she has already been working hard at the ground level for the 2017 Assembly polls.  She has finalised about 90 per cent of the candidates.

The Assembly results on May 18 will clarify to a certain extent where the Dalits have voted in the ongoing elections but UP and Punjab next year will give a clear indication of the Dalit power.      

(The author is a political analyst. Views expressed are strictly personal.)
Kalyani Shankar

Kalyani Shankar

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