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Why Ambedkar, not Gandhi, is the biggest idol in Indian politics

Panini Anand | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:50 IST
The contrast
  • Gandhi might be the father of the nation, but his legacy seems rather inert
  • In contrast, Ambedkar\'s philosophy has a revolutionary quality, which has increased his relevance today
The politics
  • The rise of Dalit politics has led to a paradigm shift, with even Hindutva forces wooing Dalits
  • No political party today that can risk ignoring the Dalit community

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi might be the father of the nation, and the most widely-known Indian leader of modern times, but it is Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar who is still the real hero of India's politics. 

Ambedkar's relevance has only increased in the 21st century. Today, the country's entire political mainstream revolves around his legacy. All political parties seek to claim his ideals, even more so than those of Gandhi.

This is not without a reason. Gandhi is indeed the ultimate beacon in the Indian political scenario, but his legacy seems somewhat inert. In contrast, Ambedkar's philosophies have always held the potential to charge up society and politics.

The rise Dalit politics

The dynamics of Indian politics have been governed by two factors - the Hindu-Muslim equation and the schism between Ambedkarism and forces inimical to his ideas. 

Actually, the paradigm shift in politics over the last three decades is the real reason why parties are queueing up to subscribe to Ambedkar's philosophy. 

The parties which claimed to espouse Ambedkar's cause did little to deliver social justice to the people he represented. This prepared a new ground for Dalit-oriented politics in the country. The last three decades have seen this strand of politics gaining prominence. 

When Kanshiram laid the foundation of the Bahujan Samaj Party, few would have imagined that it would become one of the main players in India's politics.

The rise of Mayawati was an important turning point in the Dalit movement as well as Indian politics. It established the power of Ambedkar's ideology. It is a matter of debate whether Mayawati really espoused the Dalit icon's cause, but it is clear that no party can afford to ignore the Dalit factor today. The Mandal agitation of the 1990s also played a pivotal role in strengthening Dalit politics.

The parties which claimed to espouse Ambedkar's cause did little to deliver justice to the people

The Congress has always claimed to champion the Dalit cause. The party has been relegated to insignificance wherever it has lost popularity among Dalits. 

A senior Congress leader believes the advent of Dalit politics has weakened his party. "We have done a lot of work for Dalits, but we were not a party exclusively meant for them. The Congress did not belong to one caste or community. This was the reason we could not keep our hold among the Dalits, and they were swayed by other aggressive political movements," he says.

There is no national or regional party in present scenario that would risk ignoring the eminence of Ambedkar.

Today, even a new entrant like Aam Aadmi Party has managed to win the Dalits' trust, although it was originally formed on anti-corruption plank. The party swept the Delhi polls by bringing together Dalit and Muslim votes. It now wants to repeat the same experiment in other states. 

Asaduddin Owaisi's AIMIM is also venturing on to the same path, to make its foray in the northern parts of the country. 'Jai Bheem' is the slogan he has chosen to accomplish this task.

Late realisation

Even hardline Hindu forces have realised Ambedkar's importance in recent times. The result is an increased attempt on their part to usurp his legacy. 

Such is the importance of Ambedkar in contemporary politics that even the RSS was forced to acknowledge him as one of its heroes. Dalits emerged as an important factor for the RSS in the 1990s, when social engineering was a defining factor in electoral battles.

The BJP tried its best to woo Dalits during the Bihar elections, allying with leaders like Jitan Ram Manjhi. Backward communities, including Dalits, constitute the bedrock of its future strategy. The RSS is working overtime to reach out to Dalits.

Dalits became important for the RSS in the 1990s, when social engineering was a defining factor

The same holds true for the Congress. It is rekindling the legacy of Ambedkar. All political parties appeared to jostle to identify themselves with the great leader during the special session of Parliament called to mark 125th birth anniversary of Ambedkar.

The BJP has suffered losses after the recent Rohith Vemula episode. This has intensified the Sangh Parivar's efforts to espouse Ambedkar's cause. 

"The BJP and the Sangh have no problems with Gandhi. The problem lies in the fact that the RSS is blamed for his murder. While it is factually incorrect, the Opposition parties have managed to spread the lie. This is the reason we cannot claim Gandhi beyond a limit," says a senior RSS leader.

Ambedkar will shine on

All this is happening at a time when Gandhi is increasingly restricted to public functions. It is true that no party can directly refute Gandhi, due to his towering personality. But, the reality is that Gandhi's name is no longer a vote catcher.

"The Gandhi vs Ambedkar debate is futile. While the former is a historical figure for all parties, Ambedkar is a revolutionary. They know it is Ambedkar who defines social change. This is the reason he is even more relevant than Gandhi in today's context," says Dr Pradeep Aglave, head of the Ambedkar chair at Nagpur University.

The Prime Minister recently dumped Gandhi and stated that Ambedkar and Patel were his two idols in Indian politics. But Aglave differs: "Such statements on behalf of the BJP and the RSS are a blatant lie. They are feigning a love for Ambedkar for votes. They don't want Ambedkar, but chanting his name is a political compulsion," he says.

This compulsion is proof in itself that Ambedkar is the biggest hero of modern Indian politics, and all parties want to be identified with him. Aglave feels Gandhi and Nehru are losing relevance with time. They might be relegated to oblivion in the years to come. 

However, there are reasons for Ambedkar to lead the people - he fought for all marginalised and suppressed, be it Dalits, backward classes, women or even those who suffer on the count of human rights. 

Ambedkar will continue to inspire society and politics till there is social injustice.

Edited by Shreyas Sharma

First published: 14 April 2016, 11:32 IST
Panini Anand @paninianand

Senior Assistant Editor at Catch, Panini is a poet, singer, cook, painter, commentator, traveller and photographer who has worked as reporter, producer and editor for organizations including BBC, Outlook and Rajya Sabha TV. An IIMC-New Delhi alumni who comes from Rae Bareli of UP, Panini is fond of the Ghats of Varanasi, Hindustani classical music, Awadhi biryani, Bob Marley and Pink Floyd, political talks and heritage walks. He has closely observed the mainstream national political parties, the Hindi belt politics along with many mass movements and campaigns in last two decades. He has experimented with many mass mediums: theatre, street plays and slum-based tabloids, wallpapers to online, TV, radio, photography and print.