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Dr Ambedkar and the market for icons

The extraordinary attempts made by political parties to claim Dr Ambedkar as one of their own has received much comment. One would have understood this phenomenon taking place in the immediate aftermath of Kanshi Ram and Mayawati’s successful forays into creating a Dalit electoral constituency, but that it should occur at this point in time is something that needs further examination.

The race to appropriate Ambedkar has been triggered by the BJP’s attempts to locate him within the ambit of their worldview. The most obvious reason for attempting this is the desire to hedge bets in the forthcoming UP elections. Perhaps the BSP showing in 2014 could have been read as a sign that Mayawati’s constituency is not as airtight as previously assumed. It has also been argued that this is part of the BJP’s attempt to consolidate the Hindu vote and to expand its base as part of a longer term strategy.

Whatever the reason behind BJP’s sudden interest in Ambedkar, persuading a significant chunk of the Dalit vote that the BJP is now its friend is not going to be easy, particularly because of the conflicting messages that the party has been emitting. Just the other day the head of the BJP’s women’s wing in UP, Madhu Mishra was quoted as saying “remember that those who are ruling us with the help of the Constitution today used to clean our shoes in the past”. While the party took swift action by expelling her for 6 years, her words are reflective of the unease that exists amongst its supporters about challenging the legitimacy of the existing social order. Whatever public postures that the party takes, when pushed it cannot help itself- the dominant socially conservative instinct tends to assert itself.

Not just Ambedkar, but in a larger sense, the BJP has shown a puzzling amount of faith in the power of historical icons. The BJP has spent a lot of energy in dealing with several figures of the past. It has tried to demolish Nehru, by discrediting him in a variety of ways. Gandhi has been sought to be neutralized, by being paid pious homage to, without in any way embracing any of his ideas. In this it is not too different from the Congress, which did exactly the same, except in the ambivalence it displays when it comes to figures like Godse and Savarkar, which is where its apparent reverence towards Gandhi starts to wear thin quite visibly. Sardar Patel has been successfully converted into a benevolent cheerleader for this government with parallels drawn between him and Narendra Modi. And now it is the turn of B R Ambedkar.

The BJP’s interest in recruiting the past either as a basis of support or for use as a counterpoint is interesting because it does not immediately translate into visible benefits. To believe that the memory of Sardar Patel would be a factor in elections today would be farfetched, just as it would be to imagine that attacking Nehru would be an electorally useful strategy.

Perhaps the deeper need felt is for the party to locate itself retrospectively in the national mainstream. The BJP is in the market for a more compelling origin story. The party has its icons and history, but it has never been part of the mainstream accounts of the past. To grow new memories about the past is much more difficult than modifying existing ones. However hard it tries, Deen Dayal Upadhyaya and S P Mookerjee will never be seen as mainstream icons. The need for an origin story that gives it greater legitimacy is more likely to be an internal imperative rather than an external necessity.

To achieve this, the specific ideas put forward by these leaders, be they Patel, Bhagat Singh, Gandhi Bose or Ambedkar are often sidestepped, for these are often inconvenient, and the person exalted. Icons of the past are rebranded, at the level of surface memory. It is a sophisticated long term strategy that attempts to give the party the same implicit legitimacy that the Congress has enjoyed and squandered over so many decades. Unlike the Congress, that saw no merit in history, save for what it could do for the ruling family, for the BJP, the absence of those heirlooms in the family cupboard has been a gnawing absence that it is trying to systematically overcome. The ability to think, behave and be treated like rulers needs one to have confidence in one’s lineage, and the use of leaders like Gandhi, Patel, Nehru and Bose is part of this strategy.

The same is being attempted with Ambedkar. The difference here is that unlike the others, whose influence has over the years has become largely ceremonial, Ambedkar is a figure with more practical contemporary relevance. At one level, this makes an effort to align with him potentially more rewarding but it also makes it that much more difficult. It is much easier to be found out, trying to align with him than it is with, for instance Patel. One cannot make grumbling sounds about reservation and ‘merit’ nor can one deal with a Dalit student’s suicide in a cavalier fashion and then try and stake claim over Ambedkar without being asked questions.
The BJP has a core electoral base that is committed, and attempts to expand it get thwarted by the impulses of this very base. Weak centrism has elasticity for it can accommodate several constituencies that might otherwise be opposed to each other. Ideologically strong political formations on the other hand spend a lot of energy on establishing principles of exclusion and this makes it difficult to accommodate newer socio-economic groups in its fold. In the case of the BJP, the dilemma is to reconcile the strength of its ideological binding with openness at the margins. Praising Dr Ambedkar in a ceremonial way will get the party up to speed with the Congress, but actually finding a way to connect with Dalit voters will be much more challenging.

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