This year, B.R. Ambedkar’s birth anniversary coincides with India’s first hero worship-based election. In earlier elections too, ruling parties won overwhelming majorities, but there has been no election so far in which the campaign has been so exclusively devoted to a leader’s personality. Even during the 1971 election, the campaign was cleverly turned from Indira Gandhi to ‘ garibi hatao ’. This election, though, is all about Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
On November 25, 1949, in his last speech in the Constituent Assembly, Ambedkar warned us “to observe the caution which John Stuart Mill has given to all who are interested in the maintenance of democracy, namely, not ‘to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with power which enable him to subvert their institutions’... For 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... In politics, Bhakti... is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.”
This speech was delivered nearly two years after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination. Jawaharlal Nehru was Prime Minister but not yet in a position of unchallenged dominance. Sardar Patel was still alive. Yet, Ambedkar was prescient in his analysis of the Indian psyche. The history of India is often only a history of great men and women whose deeds were recorded. Everybody else seems to have merely existed, to lay their destinies at the feet of the leader of the day. In an earlier era, Ambedkar too may have met the same fate.
Ambedkar had rarely been an electoral success. Intellectually, he was head and shoulders above most of his contemporaries, but politically he was seen as a leader of only the depressed classes. His demand for separate electorates had been conceded by British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, but had been wrested away by Gandhi’s fast unto death and the resultant Poona Pact. Ambedkar never forgave Gandhi for the effective negation of a separate voice for Dalits, chosen by the Dalits themselves. The result was that Ambedkar’s Scheduled Caste (SC) candidates won among a SC electorate, but lost in general elections.
In a 1946 letter, addressed to British Prime Minister Clement Attlee, Ambedkar wrote: “The Primary election is an election in which only the Scheduled Castes voters are entitled to vote for the Scheduled Castes candidates contesting a seat reserved for them, while in the Final election the Hindu voters are also entitled to vote for Scheduled Castes. The Hindu voters being overwhelming, they are able to elect that Scheduled Castes candidate who is their tool. This explains how the Congress Scheduled Castes candidates, who all were at the bottom in the Primary election, came to the top in the final election.”
Thus, through most of his life, Ambedkar was unelectable on his own strength. He was elected to the Constituent Assembly on a seat from Bengal, arranged for him by Jogendra Nath Mandal, who later became Pakistan’s first Law Minister. When that seat was lost to Pakistan because of Partition, Ambedkar was elected from Bombay with Congress support. In the 1951-52 parliamentary elections, he lost from Bombay. He lost another by-election for the Bhandara constituency. Meanwhile, he had been accommodated in the Rajya Sabha, but his desired success in a direct election eluded him.
The electoral pattern set in Ambedkar’s time persisted for a long time thereafter. Dalit participation in politics remained dependent on approval from the Congress. As Ambedkar wrote to A.V. Alexander in 1946, “Realising that there is no escape from giving the Untouchables some safeguards, the Congress wants to find out some way by which it can make them of no effect. It is in the system of joint electorates that the Congress sees an instrument of making the safeguards of no effect. That is why the Congress is insisting upon joint electorates. For joint electorates means giving the Untouchables office without power.”
Tradition of inequality
Ambedkar’s analysis was not far off the mark. Office without power was dangled before Dalits when, at a public address in June 1947, Gandhi said, “If I have my way, the President of the Indian Republic will be a chaste and brave Bhangi girl... If such a girl of my dreams becomes President, I shall be her servant and I shall not expect from the Government even my upkeep. I shall make Jawaharlal, Sardar Patel and Rajendra Babu her ministers and therefore her servants.” However, this suggestion was turned down by the Congress.
The pattern of a Congress-dependant Dalit leader saw Jagjivan Ram as a Minister in every Central Cabinet till 1979. It also produced occasional Chief Ministers. However, these instances were few and far between, often subject to the condescension and calculation of the Congress leadership. Office without power became the cage of the Dalit politician.
It was only through reservations in government jobs that Dalits gained any long-term access to power. The grievances of employees in north India began to be voiced by an association called the Backward and Minority Communities Employee Federation (BAMCEF). Its leader was a Punjabi Dalit who had read Ambedkar’s works. He had also seen the gradual withering away in Maharashtra of the Ambedkarite movement and its radical successors, the Dalit Panthers.
In 1984, BAMCEF leader Kanshi Ram created a Dalit-dominated party that few gave a serious chance of being independently elected. Yet, in less than a decade, the Bahujan Samaj Party was able to bargain for power on its own electoral strength. In 1995, when Kanshi Ram’s protégé, Mayawati, was sworn in for the first time as Chief Minister of U.P., then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao hailed it as “a miracle of democracy”. Ms. Mayawati has now established herself as an effective administrator, not significantly worse than her peers. She is being touted as a possible Prime Minister now — if luck goes her way. One cannot deny, however, that such a miracle of democracy is a far-fetched scenario. Yet, it is still a possibility not beyond the realm of contemplation.
Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation could not ensure equal participation of the blacks in the U.S. Nearly a century later, it took the civil rights movement and the nomination of Thurgood Marshall to the U.S. Supreme Court to reassure blacks that their voices would be heard. Barack Obama’s victory in the 2008 presidential election finally set the seal on an equal shot at power.
Indian society has had a much longer tradition of inequality than the U.S. Indian democrats must acknowledge that for far too long, an effective share in power at the Centre has eluded the marginalised. Office without power must soon give way to genuine empowerment of the hitherto powerless. It may be in this election, it may be in the next, but Ambedkar’s struggle to educate, organise and agitate against inequality will go on.
Sanjay Hegde is a senior advocate of the Supreme Court