The maddening competition between the BJP and the Congress to appropriate Dr BR Ambedkar for bolstering their fortunes will go down in Indian history as arguably the most delicious paradox of all.
This is because for much of his life the Dalit icon bitterly contested the ideas the BJP and the Congress represented or still do.
Ambedkar’s ideological opposition to the Congress even spilled out in the electoral arena. He took on, of all leaders, Mahatma Gandhi, prompting the Congress to plot his defeat in elections.
Their first battle took place in the 1937 election. Its backdrop was an acrimonious debate over the issue of separate electorate for Scheduled Castes – that is, they voting exclusively to elect Scheduled Caste legislators, as was the case with Muslims.
Ambedkar insisted on it, Gandhi was opposed to it.
Ultimately, he acquiesced because of the pressure Gandhi brought to bear on him through his fast unto death against the separate electorate. Ambedkar signed the 1932 Poona Pact, which provided for a joint Hindu electorate, but reserved seats for Scheduled Castes.
When the 1937 election drew near, the Congress decided to teach Ambedkar a lesson for having the temerity to oppose Gandhi, who claimed to represent all Indians, regardless of their caste and religion. The details of the 1937 election campaign are vividly described in historian Ramachandra Guha’s A Corner of a Foreign Field: The Indian History of a British Sport.
In 1937, there were three seats to be contested in the E and F Wards of the erstwhile Bombay — one of which was reserved. Ambedkar filed his nomination for the reserved seat, obviously.
In what was then deemed as a masterstroke, the Congress fielded Palwankar Baloo against Ambedkar. Baloo was a spinner of great repute, and had bagged over 100 wickets in India’s unofficial tour of England in 1911, turning into a Dalit icon overnight . In a felicitation ceremony for Baloo, it was Ambedkar who delivered the welcome address to him.
In 1932, Baloo had publicly endorsed Gandhi’s line for a joint Hindu electorate. It was he who persuaded Ambedkar to accept reserved seats instead of insisting on the separate electorate. Baloo was among the two who brokered the Poona Pact, which Ambedkar was to later publicly regret.
Fielding Baloo against Ambedkar is said to have been Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s idea. The contest was bitter. This is borne out from portions Guha quotes from the statement released by the publicity committee of the Congress.
For instance, it said Ambedkar’s opposition to the Congress was as good as opposing the “forces of freedom and progress” and that he was being supported by all “reactionary and anti-national forces”. While campaigning, Congress leader KM Munshi said that a “vote for Baloo is a vote for the Poona Pact. The seat for E and F wards should be fought for tooth and nail”.
On polling day, Patel even gave a call to the electorate that voting for the Congress Harijan candidate was a matter of duty.
Still, Ambedkar sailed past the finishing line by as many 2,020 votes. From the perspective of today’s psephologist, it could be said that Ambedkar won because another candidate in the fray polled 10,000 votes, a point noted by a local daily. The voting pattern suggested that Ambedkar could be vanquished even in a reserved constituency, unlikely as he was to garner a substantial chunk of upper caste votes. In 1946, Ambedkar, once again, failed to win in the election to the Bombay Provincial Assembly.
It was a blow to Ambedkar as it squashed his chances of entering the Constituent Assembly — members of which were to be elected by the provincial assemblies.
However, Jogendranath Mandal, a member of Ambedkar’s Scheduled Castes Federation in Bengal, came to the rescue of his leader. He had Ambedkar elected to the Constituent Assembly from Bengal. It is most likely the Dalit icon received votes of the Muslim League. (Mandal migrated to Pakistan, became its first Law Minister, and once that country was declared an Islamic Republic, returned to India in disgust)
As a member of the Constituent Assembly and India’s first law minister, Ambedkar and the Congress buried the hatchet. On 27 September, 1951, however, Ambedkar quit as law minister over the Hindu Code Bill. He released a statement accusing Jawaharlal Nehru of colluding with the Hindu Right as he had allowed the Bill to lapse.
Ambedkar lost in India’s first General Election, to the Congress candidate Narayan Sadoba Kajrolkar, who belonged to the Chamar caste, which competed with Ambedkar’s social group of Mahars. Ambedkar tried his luck in a 1954 Lok Sabha by-election, but failed again.
It is this history of differences and conflicts between Ambedkar and the Congress that the Sangh Parivar seeks to exploit for establishing its claims on Ambedkar. But this claim is preposterous.
The Sangh’s ideology and Ambedkar’s are like chalk and cheese
For one, the Hindu Right, of which the Sangh remains the spearhead, was bitterly opposed to the Hindu Code Bill, on which Ambedkar had set his heart upon. Sangh cadres took to the streets in protest. Swami Kapatriji Maharaj, the rabble-rouser of his times, spoke against the Bill in RSS-sponsored functions.
It was indeed the pressure from the Hindu Right that prompted Nehru to let the Bill lapse, though it was subsequently split into four parts, and passed after the original version had been diluted. For this, Nehru incurred the ire of Ambedkar, but it is a delectable fact of history that both were in the Sangh’s crosshairs then.
Ambedkar wasn't exactly enamoured of the Sangh ideology.
About the Hindu Raj, Ambedkar said, “If Hindu Raj does become a fact, it will, no doubt, be the greatest calamity for this country. No matter what the Hindus say, Hinduism is a menace to liberty, equality and fraternity. On that account, it is incompatible with democracy. Hindu Raj must be prevented at any cost.”
In his Annihilation of Caste, Ambedkar even went to the extent of saying that Hinduism as “a religion must be destroyed.” This was because Hinduism to Ambedkar was largely a compendium of laws which viewed caste discrimination, including untouchability, as a virtue.
Quite irreverently, he went on to declare, “There is nothing irreligious in working for the destruction of such a religion.” He thought the word religion was a misnomer for Hinduism. Such statements in these times would seem seditious to those out warring against anti-nationals!
Given their ideological differences with Ambedkar, why have the BJP and the Congress entered into a mad scramble to appropriate him?
Ambedkar’s steadfast opposition to the Congress notwithstanding, the party did indeed corner the largest chunk of votes of Schedules Castes, who were popularly known as Harijans in the early decades after India’s Independence. The Congress simply didn’t need Ambedkar for electoral purposes.
However, Indira Gandhi’s hold over the Scheduled Caste constituency began to weaken in the mid-1970s. Socioeconomic reasons apart, her weakening grip was symbolised by the departure of Jagjivan Ram from the Congress before the 1977 election. He was the tallest of Harijan leaders in the Congress and boasted an all-India appeal.
That decade was also the time the word Dalit began to gain currency, replacing the very patronising nomenclature of Harijan. It reflected a deepening of the Dalit movement as well as its growing militancy, not the least because of the frequency of caste massacres. An indicator of it was the birth of the radical Dalit Panthers in 1971.
To counter this trend, to ensure that the Dalits still voted the Congress in significant numbers, the rediscovery of Ambedkar became an imperative. It was not just a case of cynical manipulation of Dalits, but also signified the response of the Congress to Dalit assertion.
This assertion was manifest in the rise of Kanshi Ram and Mayawati and their Bahujan Samaj Party in the late 1980s. They took to not only extolling Ambedkar, but also past reformers such as Jyotiba Phule. A generation was now reading more about Ambedkar-Phule in newspapers than they had in their history school textbooks.
The BSP’s celebration of Ambedkar couldn’t be matched by any other political outfit. As a party representing Dalits and their interests, the BSP’s claim to Ambedkar was regarded as paramount, unquestionable and authentic. It was also the time Ram and Mayawati popularised the already existing narrative of Ambedkar having been mistreated by the Congress.
It is this narrative the BJP has picked up now, drawing inspiration from Mayawati’s poor performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Her failure to win even a seat in Uttar Pradesh has the BJP believe her Dalit votes can be cannibalised there.
Lacking a prominent Dalit leader of its own, the BJP is relying on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s praise of Ambedkar to woo the Dalits in the months before Uttar Pradesh has its Assembly election, due early next year. This is also why the Congress challenges the BJP’s attempts to lay claim to him.
They want to harness Ambedkar’s iconic status, not his ideas, to which they had been opposed during his lifetime.
The author is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid.