Iconisation of Ambedkar: How a change in strategy has fetched electoral dividends for the BJP

In another CSDS study of post-poll analysis after the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, it was found that between 2014 and 2019 support for the BJP among Dalits, Adivasis and Other Backward Class has more than doubled, writes Dr Ram Puniyani for South Asia Monitor

Dr Ram Puniyani Apr 16, 2022
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Babasaheb Ambedkar's anniversary (Photo: Youtube)

This April 14 again witnessed different political outfits celebrating Babasaheb Ambedkar's anniversary with pomp and show. In the last few decades, most political parties have been garlanding this great champion of social justice. The latest in the Ambedkar praise club is the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), a product of the RSS-backed Anna movement, to declare him as one of their two icons. Various affiliates of Hindu nationalism, the BJP and Co, have lately been celebrating this day and undertaking many programmes to show that they are also for Babasaheb. 

This year, various RSS organizations undertook programmes on this occasion. The BJP planned a ‘Social justice week’ (Samajik Nyay Saptah). They projected Ambedkar’s work on social welfare, empowerment and representation of Dalits in the social processes. They went to Dalit households to spread the message about Central government schemes which are supposed to benefit Dalits and marginalized. RSS affiliate ABVP aims to propagate his work of social inclusion across the country.

This may be the biggest paradoxes of our times. These RSS affiliates stand for Hindu nationalism, the concept which is totally antithetical to what Ambedkar stood for, the concept of Indian nationalism with secularism, socialism, democracy and social justice. He saw caste-varna system as the backbone of Brahmanical Hinduism propagated by Hindu nationalists. In his struggles for reform within Hindu society he was not at all supported by Hindu Mahasabha-RSS. 

Hindutva vs Ambedkar

Be it Chavdar Talab or Kalaram Mandir, the Hindu nationalists kept aloof from his efforts. He on the one hand went on to burn Manusmriti as a rebellion against caste and gender hierarchy inherent in Brahmanical Hinduism, the ideological base of Hindu nationalism, and on the other went on to be the chief architect of India’s Constitution, which strove for Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.

When he was burning Manusmiriti, a decade later RSS Chief Golwalkar was singing praises of the same book. This book upholds the caste hierarchy as something which has given stability to Hindu society. In response to Indian Constitution, the opposition came from the RSS camp that held that the Constitution does not have the ancient values of India (meaning Manusmriti). They were totally against reservations; on this issue, there were anti-Dalit riots in the 1980s in Ahmadabad and anti-OBC riots again in 1986. With Mandal Commission being implemented they did not oppose it directly but brought forward Kamandal, the Ram Temple issue, to polarize the communities.

Here comes a change in strategy. Rather than showing their true agenda of maintaining caste and gender hierarchy, they floated various organizations to co-opt and subjugate Dalit-OBCs. They floated Samajik Samrasta Manch (Social Harmony Forum). In contrast to Ambedkar's annihilation of caste, they talk of the supplementary role of castes. The same has been presented by their ideologue Deen Dayal Upadhayay as ‘Integral Humanism’.

It was through this social engineering that they could mobilize Dalits and Adivasis against the projected external enemy, the Muslims. They have adopted multiple strategies to work among Dalit-OBC communities. Focus is on "Hindu unity" against the enemy Muslims, who can be blamed for all the ills of Hindu society. This was seen in the Gujarat carnage of 2002 when Dalit-Adivasis were incited to undertake violence against Muslims while the organizers of the violence prepared the lists of those to be targeted.

Anti-Muslim propaganda

During elections in Uttar Pradesh in 2017, one propaganda was that the Congress and Samajwadi Party are pro-Muslim and it is only BJP that can be for Hindus (Dalit-Adivasis). The work of RSS affiliates, Samajik Samrasta Manch, Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, Seva Bharati, VHP and others in Dalit-Adivasi areas has been very consistent in wooing them over to Hindu nationalism.

In Adivasi areas, Shabri and Hanuman have been lionized. In areas with a majority of other marginalized communities, many of the local icons have been promoted with an anti-Muslim slant, like Suhel Dev, an icon of Rajbhar-Pasis. He has been given a big projection while twisting the history that Suhel Dev fought for Hindu religion against Muslim Gazi Miyan.

RSS affiliates’ charity and educational work services (seva) amongst Dalit areas is not like the right-based approach of UPA where the Right to Information was backed up by the Right to Food, Health and Education. Here a charity model is implemented and projected. In elections in 2022, the free ration scheme was backed up by the propaganda that it is due to BJP that the poor are getting benefit of free ration; they are Labharthi (beneficiaries) of BJP schemes.

The very presence of these Hindu nationalist organizations is a big factor in the marginalized getting attracted to the BJP. They also increase Brahmanical religiosity in the areas of their work. In tune with Sanskritization, the Dalit and other marginalized communities feel honored and recognized by upper castes, and thereby shift their electoral loyalties to BJP. On top of this, it seems only RSS affiliates are in constant touch and interaction with Dalit communities.

Dalit votes for BJP

So, while their political agenda is Hindu Rashtra (nation), which Ambedkar said will be a calamity for large sections of the population, Dalits in particular, the BJP is reaping big electoral rewards of its non-electoral affiliates working for Hindu Rashtra. Right from the elections of 2014, in many Dalit-OBC areas, the BJP is doing very well.

The BJP's massive win in the 2014 general election was greatly helped due to Dalit votes. Presently in Parliament, 84 seats are reserved for Dalits. In 2014, the BJP won 40 of them, according to the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS). Similarly, in another CSDS study of post-poll analysis after the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, it was found that between 2014 and 2019 support for the BJP among Dalits, Adivasis and Other Backward Class has more than doubled. Not to be left behind even in the 2021 post-poll survey also, we see this support is becoming higher among Dalits and OBCs than among upper castes.

All this is despite the BJP’s policies which are resulting in erosion of reservation of Dalits. Also, there is an increase in the cases of atrocities against them during the last few years. The change in RSS strategy through its affiliates towards the marginalized sections has richly rewarded them at the electoral level.

(The writer, a former IIT Bombay professor, is Chairman, Center for Study of Society and Secularism, Mumbai. Views are personal.)  

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