As Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav addressed media queries in Lucknow, the poster behind them spoke louder than their words.
Can Bahujan Samajwadi Party (BSP) supremo Mayawati and Samajwadi Party (SP) chief Akhilesh Yadav finally fulfil the unfinished agenda of B.R. Ambedkar and Ram Manohar Lohia: an anti-caste, socialist alliance that can offer a formidable political alternative?
The writing on the wall, quite literally, was hard to miss at the joint press conference of Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav last week. They formally announced the BSP-SP alliance for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
As the two leaders addressed queries from the media in Lucknow, the poster behind them spoke louder than their words. It had a picture of Ambedkar, positioned next to the BSP symbol, and Lohia, placed alongside the SP symbol. Besides, the slogans of ‘Jai Bhim’ and ‘Jai Samajwad’ were printed on it. The two erstwhile rivals’ appropriation of Ambedkar and Lohia’s legacies was on full display.
It is indeed strange that Ambedkar and Lohia, the two giants of Indian politics, had never met although they were acutely aware of each other’s work and had deep respect for each other’s ideologies. An alliance of ideas between the two leaders started taking shape through letters in late 1955, and they planned to meet. But, Ambedkar died before it could happen.
One can only guess the political implications of such a meet, but the two had much in common.
Rising from the margins
Both of them received academic training in the western university system. Lohia went to Germany’s Humboldt University to do his PhD in Economics, whereas Ambedkar did his PhD in Economics from Columbia University and also had a master’s degree from London School of Economics. Both were trained in the liberal democratic tradition and had great regard for the cherished goal of liberty and fraternity.
Both Lohia and Ambedkar were modernists and critics of traditional Indian social system of varna and caste. Unlike Gandhi, who believed in the utopian Ram Rajya and Gram Swarajya, these two modernist thinkers wanted India never to go back to some ancient golden era. Their goal was to herald a modern democracy in the country.
In the political arena, both Lohia and Ambedkar had limited success. Lohia won the Lok Sabha election only once. Ambedkar never won parliamentary polls. Their political parties also had almost similar experiences. They never came to power in any of the states during their lifetime.
Both Lohia and Ambedkar were very influential. Their ideological and philosophical impact was disproportionate to their political might. Their influence grew only after their demise. Their collected works are testimony to the fact that both leaders were prolific writers and good speakers.
Lohia and Ambedkar were nation builders in the true sense and saw caste as an issue which must be tackled as problematic.
The annihilation of caste was on their agenda, and they argued against the caste system from the standpoint of economics and sociology.
Though Ambedkar deliberated on class and economic disparity, his primary focus was on the malaise that was the caste system. In his concluding speech in the Constituent Assembly, Ambedkar argues that without having equality in social and economic life, it will be very difficult to sustain Indian democracy. On this issue, Lohia and Ambedkar were on the same page besides espousing similar ideas on fighting patriarchy.
The stark difference between these two scholars stemmed from their differing ideas on the co-relation between caste and religion. It could have been the product of their different positions in the caste system.
Ambedkar had endured caste from the lowest rung, so he had bitter experiences about the whole structure. For him, the ‘source of caste’ were Hindu religious texts. This is the reason he burnt the Manusmriti in public.
Lohia, on the other hand, wanted the caste system to go, but for him ,religion was not the origin of caste.
He never campaigned against Hindu religion whereas Ambedkar had said way back in 1936 in his famous treatise Annihilation of Caste that he would not die a Hindu.
In 1956, he finally abandoned the religion. On the contrary, Lohia was a social reformer who used to organise Ramayana Melas to enlighten ordinary masses.
(Those who want to know more about the intersections of Lohia and Ambedkar may read this paper by Pankaj Kumar.)
Both Lohia and Ambedkar came very close to working together in 1956, but Ambedkar’s death denied history that chance. Now, Mayawati’s BSP and Akhilesh Yadav’s SP, who were known to be archenemies till a year ago, have claimed allegiance to their ideologies to fight a common opposition—the Bharatiya Janata Party.
And, they can perhaps achieve what Lohia and Ambedkar dreamed of.
The author is a senior journalist.