BJP is a young but matured party. It has completed almost three and a half decades as a leading party in the country, but it has deep roots within the RSS, its parent organization. Both RSS and BJP have tried to relate to Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar, a leader who devoted his life to the upliftment of the Backwards and Dalits to put them on a par with the higher-caste Hindus. Ambedkar’s quest was for equality in society. He attempted it by proposing the annihilation of caste system.
Unfortunately no political party, including the BJP and the Congress, has ever been able to see through Ambedkar’s eyes. For them, Ambedkar was a leader who held sway over the Backwards and Dalits and hence someone who can fetch them a good number of votes.
Ever since it was founded in the 1980, the BJP has shown little interest in Ambedkar. The party gave prominence to Gandhi. It was in search of social ideological bases; it had already adopted a liberal agenda for the economy. Hence, for the party, the major challenge was to build a social appeal among its base of higher castes, mainly Brahmins and the trader class. However, it never gave any serious thought to bettering the lot of the Backwards and Dalits, whose votes mostly went to the Congress.
The situation started to change after the emergence of the Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti (DS4) and subsequent rise of the BSP, when for the first time a distinct political identity of the Backwards and Dalits began to crystallize. The BJP was quick to realize the potential of the votes of these people. The major stumbling block was accommodating these people along with the upper-caste groups and its Hindutva ideology. In 1989, for the first time, the BJP decided to reach out to the lower castes and set up Hedgewar Seva Nyas to interact with the Dalits directly. The rise of BSP alarmed all political parties and so began the rush to Ambedkar. Both the BJP and Congress joined the race to capitalize on his legacy for votes. Thus, more than three decades after his death, Ambedkar was awarded the Bharat Ratna in 1990.
The BJP continued to struggle to create a new political space for accommodating Ambedkar along with the upper castes. In the general elections of 1998, a watershed year for the BJP, there was no mention of Ambedkar in its manifesto but much praise for Gandhi. Gandhi was a convenient choice; he had upper-case acceptance and a vision that was close to Ramrajya. In the 2009 and 2014 parliamentary elections, the BJP manifestos emphasized social justice and social harmony but Ambedkar was still nowhere to be seen or heard.
Now, the political scene has changed again. With the BSP having been trounced in the 2012 Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections and then having drawn a blank in last year’s Lok Sabha elections, the BJP has smelt out an opportunity to corner Dalit votes. The upper-caste electorate, the traditional base of the party, has bought into the personality of Narendra Modi and the inclusion of Dalits doesn’t worry them. Therefore, for a party with no established Dalit leader in its ranks, Ambedkar is the natural choice to draw voters.
Bihar Assembly elections are due later this year and the Uttar Pradesh elections will follow. For this reason, BJP is making every effort to bring the Backwards and Dalits into its fold. The talks with Jitan Ram Manjhi are a clear pointer to it. The BJP wants to project itself as a champion of the cause of Dalits. This gives it an opportunity to gauge the psyche of the voters. But the party has yet to make any real effort to eliminate the caste system. It has never assimilated the thoughts of Ambedkar in its ideology. The RSS has cleverly twisted his statements to suit its stand on Pakistan, Ghar Wapsi, etc, but has not explained his real thoughts anywhere.
The RSS seems to be in a mood to celebrate the legacy of Ambedkar but it is a political move. What is needed is a movement to deconstruct the Hindu social system and reconstruct a casteless society. The RSS is playing up Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism to show how he prevented Hindus from converting to “foreign” religions. In fact, he chose Buddhism because it provided shelter to all. Can BJP learn from it and reform its own caste-based party? Will it let Dalits occupy its top positions and simultaneously adopt the real philosophy of Ambedkar? Or is it simply aping Congress’ vote-bank politics?
Published in the July 2015 issue of the FORWARD Press magazine