Why is Kanshi Ram relevant in Indian politics all over again? After all, the BSP, the party that he founded is going to fight one of the most keenly watched contests in Uttar Pradesh in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.
Kanshi Ram’s clarion call – “Vote hamara, raj tumhara, nahi chalega” – had changed politics in north India forever, especially in Uttar Pradesh and for the Dalit community. He promised the lower castes that if they can organise themselves into a grand voting bloc, they will become the ruler of this country. After shaping the state politics for nearly three decades, BSP’s Mayawati is at a critical crossroad today.
She successfully imbibed and furthered Kanshi Ram’s creed with her slogan: “Vote se lenge PM/CM, arakshan se lenge SP/DM”, and demonstrated the power of self-representation for Dalits and OBCs to become rulers. This resulted in a surge of votes for the BSP. Its vote share in the Lok Sabha elections peaked in 2009 and it got 6.17 per cent vote share and 21 Lok Sabha seats. Before that, in 2007 it formed the government in UP with full majority, after having ruled with coalitions before that. Then the decline set in. In 2014, BSP got 4.20 per cent of votes, it failed to win any seat. In the 2017 assembly elections, its strength was reduced to 19 seats.
Importantly, during this period of Mayawati’s rise, the Dalit movement’s agitational posture went into hibernation in northern India. Mass mobilisations on the ground were few and far between, and the dominant mantra was for “satta mein bhagidari” or a stake in the governing processes. But now that the BSP’s great political initiative appears to be withering away – Dalit politics has hit the streets once again. This is evidenced by the Una agitation, protests for Rohith Vemula, Bhima Koregaon agitation, 2 April Bharat Bandh last year, the rise of the Bhim Army, the Bharat Bandh that was proposed on 5 March this year on university reservation roster issue and so on.
Democracies in the sub-continent have had a checkered trajectory. But the most underprivileged in India – the lowest in the hierarchical caste system – have forged their trust in democratic institutions because of progressive special provisions and reservations in legislature and in jobs in the Constitution for the backward classes. If the social contract between the most marginalised groups and electoral democracy breaks, many fear that Dalit anger will rise again. One thesis is that democracy has survived because the underclass had believed that the democratic institutions will deliver for them. But if that faith gives in to disenchantment, what Kanshi Ram said will ring true again.
The last time a period of disenchantment set in – about two decades after Independence when the lower classes became impatient at the non-deliverance of the promise of the Republic – was when a young Kanshi Ram was a government employee and was reading Babasaheb Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste. Two political processes came out of this period of discontent in the northern plains. One was led by the socialists and another by Kanshi Ram. He organised the SC and ST employees by forming BAMCEF, in 1973, and later the BSP. It was the silent revolution that saved Indian democracy, a contribution that historians have largely missed. For this Kanshi Ram should be conferred the Bharat Ratna. The nation awarded the Bharat Ratna to the makers of the Constitution, now it’s time to confer the same honour to the foremost saviour of democracy.
India is at the threshold of another such disenchantment today. Will the self-representation politics that Kanshi Ram and Mayawati heralded weaken? And what will take its place?
That’s where the current relevance of Kanshi Ram comes in. In the upcoming Lok Sabha elections, the vote will matter more than anger. This is what Ambedkar’s Grammer of Anarchy advised us to avoid at any cost:
“When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for these unconstitutional methods. These methods are nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us.”
The author is a senior journalist.
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