Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar figures large in Mayawati’s campaign exhortations, but would the Constitution’s founding father have applauded her politics? Meera Nanda imagines a post-electoral conversation between the two
We are trying to challenge prejudice by bringing all castes together under the leadership of Dalits, so we can open the doors of equality for allLucknow, Sunday, May 13, 2007. It was past midnight, and Mayawati was tired. She had spent the day at the Governor’s residence, taking the oath of office as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. It was quite a show, what with her team of fifty ministers tagging behind her, the milling crowds of admirers and the glare of all the cameras. Mayawati felt like a long-distance runner reaching the finish line: exhilarated but exhausted. She fell asleep the moment her head touched the pillow. It was then that Dr Ambedkar’s statue, which she had garlanded earlier that evening in Ambedkar Park, came alive and began to speak, as statues sometimes do in dreams…
Ambedkar: It was wonderful to see you and so many of your comrades in the park today, Mayaji. It warms my heart to see my fellow Indians go to vote with such enthusiasm, such earnestness, such great hope.
Mayawati: Pujya Babasaheb! What a shubh mahurat to have your darshan. (Bends to touch Ambedkar’s feet).
Ambedkar: (Steps back, folds his hands in a namaste) Please don’t lower yourself before me or anyone else. And this reminds me: now that you are chief minister again, could you please stop erecting Ambedkar statues all over the place? You went overboard the last three times you held office. There are better ways of spending tax-payers’ money than turning me into an idol…
Mayawati: But you are our guiding light, Babasaheb. Your statutes inspire pride and self-confidence among the Dalit masses.
Ambedkar: I’m deeply moved by their struggles and genuinely proud of their achievements. But they don’t need my statues to feel inspired. Our Constitution should be enough to lift up their spirits and fill their hearts with courage. I live through my ideas and my writings.
Mayawati: Then you must be very proud of the way we are putting your ideas to work. The social revolution we have started in Uttar Pradesh is nothing but your philosophy in action. As we in the Bahujan Samaj Party used to say when Kanshi Ramji was our leader, “Baba tera mission adhura, Kanshi Ram karega pura…”
If this rat race is what you call Ambedkarism, then I am not an Ambedkarite. Ambedkar: It is this “social revolution” of yours that I have come to talk about. I hear bigwig academics compare you favourably with Mao, I hear left-wing journalists celebrate you for inverting the caste pyramid, I hear right-wing Hindu chauvinists praise you for promoting caste harmony. But, Mayaji, I can’t join this chorus of praise. This is not the revolution I dreamt of.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m happy to see you, daughter of a Chamar, come so far and rise so high. I admire you and Kanshi Ram for mobilising our Dalit brethren who have been treated as mere vote banks for so long. And you certainly have shown great political astuteness in putting together a winning political coalition. I bet you’d make an excellent chess player! But…
Mayawati: Sab apki kripa hai, Babasaheb. We are your students. We practice Ambedkarism.
Ambedkar: But, as I was saying, I am uncomfortable with what you call “Ambed-karism.” I find it a sad caricature of my philosophy. In my view, democracy is not merely a matter of formal equality and periodic elections. Real democracy means fraternity, a mode of associated living, an attitude of respect toward fellow citizens. For this kind of democracy to take root in our society, the hold of all beliefs that make hierarchies of caste, class and gender look natural and harmonious has to be destroyed. That is what I mean by the annihilation of caste. So you see, Ambedkarism — if you want to give my philosophy a name — is not about winning elections only. It is about creating a new society committed to the ideals of liberty, equality, justice and fraternity. When you have some spare time, you should dust off your copy of my Annihilation of Caste. I summed up my philosophy in that little book.
It is true that I wanted Dalits to seek allies so they could become the nation’s “ruling community”. In my Independent Labour Party, for example, we worked with workers and peasants of all castes. And at many junctures, I was helped by enlightened Brahmins and other dwijas. But I sought allies not because they could bring me votes, but because they shared my ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity.
In contrast, the pursuit of raw power has become an end in itself for your party. It doesn’t seem to matter who you seek out, how you woo them and what you do with political power once you have it. Where is the larger transformative agenda to challenge capitalism, Brahminism and religious superstition? I don’t see any signs of it.
Mayawati: But Babasaheb, times have changed. These days all political parties make deals — it’s called “social engineering.” Why, just recently the Akalis came to power in Punjab with the help of the BJP, which treats Sikhs as if they were still Hindus! The Congress stayed in power all these years because it created a big tent which brought in Brahmins, Muslims and Dalits. As you know, Dalits make up only 21 percent of UP. We can never come to power unless we create a big tent of our own and put Dalits in charge.
Ambedkar: You are 100 percent correct, Mayaji. All major political parties make all kinds of deals to win elections. As the old saying goes, politics makes strange bedfellows. But just because everyone does it, does not make it right. This kind of horse-trading harms the quality of our democracy. At the grassroots, we are not yet a country of laws, but rather a country at the mercy of the whims and prejudices of men and women in power.
I understand the BSP’s electoral compulsions. But why drape the mantle of “Ambedkarism” on this rat race? If tactical caste calculation in pursuit of power is how you define Ambedkarism, then I am not an Ambedkarite. Ambedkarism is about so much more than winning elections: it is about creating a new egalitarian, rational cultural commonsense; it is about turning our political democracy into a secular social democracy. As I used to remind Congressmen in the Constituent Assembly, “We are having political democracy to reform our social system which is so full of inequalities and discriminations...”
Mayawati: But we are seeking power in order to reform our social system. We in the bsp are committed to annihilating caste, but we are pragmatic. We believe in using caste calculations to end casteism. By bringing upper castes to support our core constituency of Dalits, the most backward castes and poor Muslims, we are building a sarvajan samaj, a big tent, a rainbow coalition of all castes led by us Dalits.
Ambedkar: In theory, it sll sounds great. But the sad fact is that a real fellow-feeling of sarvajan samaj does not exist in India. Even though we have stopped using the vocabulary of chaturvarna, the mental attitudes that justify hierarchies are still there.
Mayawati: I agree caste prejudice abounds at all levels in our society. But we are trying to challenge it by bringing all castes together under the leadership of Dalits, so that we can open the doors of equality for all.
Ambedkar: Judging by your own record, caste-based coalitions seem to deepen casteism, not lessen it. When you were cm, you took care of your Dalit constituency; when Mulayam Singh got his turn, he took care of his Yadavs. When you became cm again, you tightened the law preventing atrocities against Dalits, and when your BJP “allies” came to power, they immediately loosened those laws. By your third stint as cm in 2002, you were so keen on retaining the BJP’s support that you even condoned Narendra Modi’s anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat. After all this, you will understand why I’m unable to rejoice in your victory.
Mayawati: On all previous occasions, bsp governments were short-lived. This time, we will be more productive because we will complete our full five-year term.
Ambedkar: Yes, yes, I know that this time your upper-caste allies are a part of the BSP and not simply supporting it from the outside. But do you really believe that just because they ran on BSP tickets, they have given up their belief in Hindu majoritarianism and Hindu traditionalism? Don’t you see that they are using you, just as much as you think you are using them?
Mayawati: That may be so. But you are overlooking the energising effect a Dalit chief minister has on Dalits. Whenever I’m in power, Dalits feel safer and more confident. Did you notice how proud they looked when all my Brahmin ministers and hangers-on touched my feet at the oath-taking ceremony?
Ambedkar: That Dalits should feel more confident when one of their own is in power is a sign of the shallowness of our democracy. And this business of Brahmins falling at your feet, is not something you should revel in or encourage. My idea of a good society is a society where there is no bowing and scraping…
Mayawati: You may not like all this “bowing and scraping,” but we have to respect the reet rivaz of the people. After so many centuries, it is no small matter that the mighty savaranas are bowing before us! These gestures are important. They create a sense of empowerment.
But our social revolution goes beyond symbols. Whenever we have come to power, we brought solid material gains like roads, electricity, water and schools to thousands of Ambedkar Villages. We provided jobs to landless Dalits through the Ambedkar Rozgar Yojna. Dalits know that their needs will be taken care of only when there is one of their own in power. That is why they vote for us again and again…
Ambedkar: I agree these are positive steps. But Dalits and the poor of other castes and religious minorities are citizens of this country, and they have a right to all the basics for a good life. Their welfare should not depend upon the caste or creed of those in power. In the deliberative democracy I envisioned, policy was set by rational criteria guided by principles of equality.
Mayawati: Your deliberative democracy sounds very good. But we politicians have to worry about reality on the ground. But on one thing at least you must give us full marks: we are defending secularism. I consider that our most important achievement. The bsp has peeled off the Brahmin vote from the BJP. Once we nationalise our UP model, the BJP will be finished.
Ambedkar: It is true that the bsp’s gains have come at the BJP’s expense. I’m very pleased to see the Hindu nationalists checkmated. But there are two reasons why I am still worried.
One, you have defied the first principle of secularism by openly invoking the gods in your election appeals. I was aghast to see bsp’s haathi first turn into Ganesh, and then morph into the Hindu trinity! If it is wrong for the BJP to parade the gods for electoral gains, it is equally wrong for the bsp to do the same. Indeed, it is downright hypocritical of the bsp to start showing reverence to gods that Dalits and shudras were forbidden to worship through the ages. You have kept the BJP at bay for now, but you have failed to advance a secular idiom suitable for the public sphere.
Mayawati: With due respect, Babasaheb, you are again measuring existing reality against very high ideals.
Ambedkar: We must measure our actions against our highest ideals. What else are ideals for? But let me give you the second reason why I’m not rejoicing in your defence of “secularism”. You seem to think that just because Brahmins do not lord it over landless Dalit labourers in the villages, they’re automatically your allies against the shudra landowners. That because there is no immediate economic conflict between Brahmins and Dalits, there is no ideological contradiction either.
I’m afraid you underestimate the power of belief, ritual, myth, and habits-of-the-heart. Neither the urban middle classes nor the land-owning peasants have revised the notions of atman and rebirth that underlie the hierarchies of caste and gender. If anything, neo-Hindu gurus and traditional pundits are getting more sophisticated in packaging this superstitious worldview in the covers of “science”. That is why I have always urged Dalits to cultivate the scientific temper and actively challenge irrational ideas and practices. That was the message of my Buddha and His Dhamma.
It is possible that the Brahmin communities that voted for you for tactical reasons are actually making a living propagating conservative social values and superstitious religious practices in the temples, ashrams and Vedic pathshalas that dot your state. Now that they have a foot in your government, will they not expect state largesse for a traditionalist agenda in education and other cultural matters? In my humble opinion, Hindu traditionalism is the breeding ground of Hindu nationalism. That is why I worry whether you will be able to hold the Hindutva forces at bay.
Mayawati: I think I am strong enough to defy all communal agendas. Our agenda is secular, and I will not put up with any Hindutva propaganda.
Mayawati: All power to you, Mayaji. You and the people of UP have my best wishes. It is getting late, and I must take your leave. But I am always with you in spirit.
Ambedkar’s voice fades as the statue turns to stone again. Mayawati wakes up and sits thinking about her dream into the wee hours of the morning…
Nanda is a philosopher of science and a John Templeton Foundation fellow
Jun 23 , 2007
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