Rescuing Ambedkar from pure Dalitism: He would've been India's best Prime Minister

It is the tragedy of great men and saints that once they are gone many things will be attributed to them - things they may never have stood for. Their teachings may either be forgotten or modified or even completely hijacked to suit the politics of those who want to rule in their name.

Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. Reuters

Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. Reuters

The Buddha's ethical teachings morphed into a formal religion after him. He himself did not want to create a Buddhism. The real-life Jesus' teachings morphed into Catholic Church dogma. Sikhism changed character between the time of its founder, Guru Nanak, and the last Guru, Gobind Singh, from a reformist movement to something far more potent and militant. Gandhi's message is now malleable enough to be adopted by everybody from Congress to BJP. And the Communists sometimes quote Swami Vivekananda and Gandhi to show up the Sangh Parivar.

And so it is with Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, whose 124th birth anniversary falls today (14 April).

For pure vote-bank reasons, both Congress and BJP claim to be truer followers of Ambedkar than the rest, as do a handful of Dalit parties. From being a social reformer and modern thinker, they have reduced him to a Dalit icon about whom only nice things must be said.

Had he been around today, Ambedkar would perhaps be most disappointed with what Dalits have reduced him to – a statue to be venerated everywhere. They are in love with the power of his image rather than with his core message of liberty, equality and fraternity.

Dalits most of all have ignored his warning to avoid hero-worship. Ambedkar acknowledged that "there was nothing wrong in being grateful to great men" who had served society all their lives, but gratitude cannot be replaced with hero-worship. He wrote: "In India, bhakti, or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship."

It is surmised that Ambedkar may have had Gandhi or Nehru in mind when he wrote this, but this statement is truer today of Dalit parties than anyone else. Both Gandhi and Nehru – two other leaders with god-like status - are being demythologised and humanised. We now see their warts as much as their greatness. But Dalit parties are largely into veneration of Ambedkar, and are essentially tinpot dictators who cannot work even with other Dalit parties for a common cause (consider Mayawati, and various factions of the Republican Party of India).

Can we do anything to rescue Ambedkar from his devoted captors?

The only way to save his legacy is to end the Dalit monopoly of Ambedkar. He was not just a social reformer, but possibly the best prime minister India never had. India's misfortune was that the three big leaders after Nehru – Ambedkar, Maulana Azad and Sardar Patel, not to speak of many others – never managed to counter the towering influence of Nehru and some of his bad or naïve ideas.

Patel died too soon after Independence to have left an impact beyond the integration of states; Ambedkar left Nehru’s cabinet in 1950 to pursue his social reform goals; and Maulana Azad – who served in the Nehru cabinet almost till the end of his life in 1958 – failed to create a Muslim leadership in India that could think beyond physical safety and vote-banks.

While Ambedkar's place in the pantheon of social reformers is second to none – in my opinion, he comes only after the Buddha, and in the same league as Swami Vivekananda, Sree Narayana Guru and Guru Nanak – his impact on politics and economics can only be surmised from some of his writings. Despite attempts by some Dalit writers and the Left to think of him as socialist, the fact is he had no love lost for state capitalism (as this article argues).

Ambedkar believed in social equality, and not necessarily socialism. Which is why he did not think it right to put the word "socialist" into the constitution, as Aravindan Neelakandan points out by quoting Ambedkar in this article. “What should be the policy of the state, how the society should be organised in its social and economic side are matters which must be decided by the people themselves according to time and circumstances. It cannot be laid down in the Constitution itself, because that is destroying democracy altogether. It is perfectly possible today, for the majority people to hold that the socialist organisation of society is better than the capitalist organisation of society. But it would be perfectly possible for thinking people to devise some other form of social organisation which might be better than the socialist organisation of today or of tomorrow. I do not see therefore why the Constitution should tie down the people to live in a particular form and not leave it to the people themselves to decide it for themselves."

It would be equally erroneous to think of Ambedkar as a dyed-in-the-wool free-marketer, though some of his earlier writings on economics do give that impression. I have no doubt he believed in the power of capitalism to smash old feudalisms and caste-based hierarchies, because capitalism recognises merit, not lineage. But, equally, it is difficult to believe he would have remained the economic conservative he appeared to be when he wrote his magisterial thesis in 1923 on “The problem of the rupee: Its origin and its solution.”

In this book, he suggested that India should adopt the gold standard and that the government should not be allowed to print money at will. He, in fact, wanted banks to create competing currencies, and not governments. He wrote: "It is said that the best way to stabilise the rupee is to provide for effective convertibility into gold. I do not deny that this is one way of doing it. But, I think, a far better way would be to have an inconvertible rupee with a fixed limit of issue. Indeed, if I had any say in the matter, I would propose that the government of India should melt the rupees, sell them as bullion and use the proceeds for revenue purposes and fill the void by an inconvertible paper. But that may be too radical a proposal, and I do not therefore press for it, although I regard it as essentially sound. In any case, the vita! point is to close the mints, not merely to the public, as they have been, but to the government as well. Once that is done, I venture to say that the Indian currency, based on gold as legal tender with a rupee currency fixed in issue, will conform to the principles embodied in the English currency system."

Today, even Tea Party radicals of the Republican Right may not advocate a return to the gold standard, though they do want to limit the role of government and its ability to print money. It is more than likely that Ambedkar would have modified his views on the rupee and the kind of economic policies we need to pursue “according to time and circumstances.”

It is best to look at Ambedkar as a non-doctrinaire intellectual rather than someone committed to this ideology or that. This is the true hallmark of a great leader – someone who rethinks his hypothesis when circumstances change.

The reason why one should consider Ambedkar as the best PM India never had is simple: like Nehru, he was modern in his thinking; but unlike Nehru, his ideas flowed from rational and unblinkered thought. Ambedkar is unlikely to have sent India down the path of state socialism and decades of licence-permit raj even though he was all in favour of social change.

Like Gandhi, he wanted to think about the poorest of the poor, not least because of his own depressed class origins; but unlike Gandhi, he had no illusions about an idyllic rural world that never existed. He saw urbanism as the way out of slavery for Dalits – and in this he was prescient. Today, not just Dalits, but all small farmers and the landless will see migration to cities as the way out of acute poverty. It should be obvious to everyone that India’s future lies in rapid urbanisation. Ambedkar would probably have backed the land acquisition bill of Narendra Modi, since the challenge is to create jobs and release agriculturists from the tyranny of small and underproductive land holdings.

He was an early votary of reservations in education for the OBCs, apart from the SC/STs. But unlike the general political consensus today, he is unlikely to have backed the creamy layers of Dalits and OBCs to continue cornering the benefits of reservations endlessly, at the cost of the more impoverished. At some point, he is sure to have backed a shift to reservations based on class and socio-economic states, and not just caste. Remember, he was in favour of annihilating caste, not perpetuating it. By making caste reservations permanent, we have created a permanent vested interest in caste consciousness.

To quote Ambedkar again: "We must make our political democracy a social democracy as well. Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it social democracy. What does social democracy mean? It means a way of life which recognises liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life. These principles of liberty, equality and fraternity are not to be treated as separate items in a trinity. They form a union of trinity in the sense that to divorce one from the other is to defeat the very purpose of democracy. Without equality, liberty would produce the supremacy of the few over the many. Equality without liberty would kill individual initiative. Without fraternity, liberty would produce the supremacy of the few over the many. Equality without liberty would kill individual initiative. Without fraternity, liberty and equality could not become a natural course of things. It would require a constable to enforce them."

It is reasonable to presume that Ambedkar's rationality and social thought processes would have led him to combine the best of modern democracy and social change for the betterment of the whole of society. He would have made a great PM.


Updated Date: Apr 15, 2015 07:39 AM

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