The new AAP government in Punjab has decided to display pictures of Dr BR Ambedkar, along with freedom fighter Bhagat Singh, in government offices. Earlier this year, the AAP government of Delhi made a similar announcement.
While Babasaheb has always been admired as a national icon and chief draftsman of the Constitution, the renewed rush among parties like the AAP and BJP to claim for themselves the legacy of the man whose 131st birth anniversary was celebrated on April 14 can be understood in the context of India’s significant Dalit vote that now appears more than ever to be without a natural ‘home’.
The Dalit vote
Assembly elections are due in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh later this year and in Haryana in 2024. After winning Delhi twice and Punjab with huge majorities, the AAP sees an opportunity in all three states.
In the 2011 Census, Dalits were 31.94% of the population of Punjab, the highest percentage in the country. They were 20.17% in Haryana, 25.19% in Himachal Pradesh, 6.74% in Gujarat, and 16.7% in Delhi. In India as a whole, Dalits, who have a special reverence and deep affection for Ambedkar, are 16.6%.
Data from recent Assembly elections show that Dalit voters in Himachal, Gujarat, and Haryana have mostly gone with the traditional players, BJP and Congress. The BSP’s footprint has been tiny: in Himachal, it got 0.49% in 2017 and 1.17% in 2012; in Gujarat, 0.69% and 1.25% respectively; and in Haryana, 4.14% in 2019 and 4.37% in 2014. Despite Punjab’s large Dalit population, the BSP got just 1.77% of the vote in 2022; in 2017, it had got 1.52%. In Delhi, it got 0.71% of the votes in 2020, and 1.30% in 2015.
However, in 2007, the BSP won a thumping majority in UP, the party did better in Punjab as well, getting 4.13% of the vote. In the elections in Delhi in 2008, the BSP polled as much as 14.05%. As AAP emerged as a powerful force, the BSP’s vote share in Delhi shrank to 5.35% in 2013.
Ambedkar in politics
Starting from the 1980s, Kanshi Ram, the BSP’s founder, began to take away a large part of the Congress’s traditional Dalit vote and damaged the party heavily, especially in UP. Kanshi Ram, who denounced Dalit leaders of other parties as “stooges”, launched his book The Chamcha Age in September 1982.
The chamchas, he said, were “tools, agents and stooges of the high caste Hindus”, adding: “The oppressed and exploited people of India who are about 85 per cent of India’s total population are a leaderless lot. The high caste Hindus have succeeded in creating leadershipness amongst them. “
The launch of the book coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Poona Pact between Mahatma Gandhi and Ambedkar.
In 1981 Kanshi Ram founded the social organization ‘DS-4’, short for Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti. Three years later, on Ambedkar’s birth anniversary, he dissolved it and founded the BSP. The aim, as he had articulated in his book, was to bring together 85% of the country’s population – including the SCs, STs, OBCs, and minorities. A popular slogan that he later captured captured this political project: “Jiski jitna sankhya bhaari, uski utni bhaagidari (The greater the numbers, the bigger the share).”
Kanshi Ram had predicted the end of the “Chamcha Yug” in 10 years. However, even as the Congress haemorrhaged Dalit support, other parties and politicians reacted to the challenge. In March 1990, the VP Singh government, in which social justice leaders such as Ram Vilas Paswan and Sharad Yadav were ministers, conferred the Bharat Ratna on Ambedkar posthumously.
But Kanshi Ram’s plan to organize “85 per cent” of the population was successful to some extent only in UP. In 1993, he joined hands with the Samajwadi Party of Mulayam Singh Yadav to oust the BJP from power (“Mile Mulayam Kanshi Ram, hawa mein ud gaye Jai Shri Ram”). But their alliance collapsed in June 1995, and a very long period of hostility between the two parties followed. An attempt by Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati to build an alliance against the BJP ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections lasted for just a few months. In Bihar, Lalu Prasad emerged as a vote-catcher among not just the OBCs and Muslims, but also Dalits.
RSS and Ambedkar
The RSS has spoken of “Hindu unity” since its birth in 1925, but its leadership has traditionally been dominated by upper castes, in particular Brahmins. On Vijayadashami in 1956, Ambedkar embraced Buddhism along with nearly half a million followers in Deekshabhoomi in Nagpur, the headquarters of the RSS, but it wasn’t until 1981, when hundreds of lower-caste Hindus converted to Islam in Meenakshipuram in Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli district, that the Sangh began its Dalit outreach.
The late RSS ideologue Dattopant Thengdi wrote four books on Ambedkar, praising his efforts for “social equality”. Sah-sarkaryawah Dr Krishna Gopal, who was until last year in charge of coordination with the BJP, too has written a book on Ambedkar.
In 1989, the centenary year of the first Sarsanghchalak KB Hedgewar, every branch was asked to run at least one education center in Dalit localities in its area. Behind this strategy were then Sarsanghchalak Balasaheb Deoras and Sarkaryawah HV Sheshadri; this was followed by the establishment of sewa vibhags to organize such activities.
In 1990, the RSS marked the centenary year of Ambedkar and death centenary year of social reformer Jyotiba Phule. The Akhil Bhartiya Pratinidhi Sabha, the highest decision-making body of the RSS, passed a resolution that read:
“These two great leaders dealt deadly blows to the evil practices and conventions prevailing in Hindu society, and successfully persuaded Hindu society to do away with all the injustices it had perpetrated on its own members.”
On October 22, 2015, in his annual Vijayadashami speech, Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat praised Ambedkar and ended with the slogan, “Hindu Hindu ek rahen, bhed-bhav ko nahin sahen (Hindus must stay together, reject discrimination).”
Modi and Dalits
Until a few years ago, the Dalit vote bank remained largely out of reach of the BJP, which was still trapped in its image of an upper-caste party. Speaking in Kochi in February 2014, Narendra Modi promised his government would give Dalits, OBCs, and most-backwards their due. In 2015, the BJP celebrated Ambedkar’s 125th birth centenary year down to the level of its small party units. The central government got re-printed the Collected Works of Dr Ambedkar once it was freed from copyright after December 6, 2016. Until around 2018, the Prime Minister repeatedly invited Ambedkar in speeches.
In the Lok Sabha elections of 2019 and the UP Assembly elections of 2022, schemes such as Ujjwala, PM Awas, and free rations brought the BJP huge benefits. A large number of beneficiaries of these welfare schemes are Dalits. In the UP elections this year, a large percentage of Dalit voters are believed to have shifted their nearly three-decade-old loyalty to the BSP to the BJP. The BJP asked Union and state ministers, MPs, and MLAs to attend local events on Ambedkar Jayanti on Thursday in all districts of the state.
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