In the summer of 1988, probably the most important by-election in Indian political history took place in Allahabad. Funnily, it was for a Lok Sabha seat for just over a year as general elections were due in late 1989. But all that was secondary.
The primary issue was the Bofors scandal, and the challenge to Rajiv Gandhi building around it. The leader of the challenge, V.P. Singh, had rebelled, resigned as defence minister and as Lok Sabha member, and was seeking re-election from Allahabad. The by-election, in turn, was also caused by the Bofors scandal. Amitabh Bachchan’s name had been dragged in the scandal, and he had resigned, giving up politics forever.
This is what made it such a historic election. To counter V.P. Singh, the Congress fielded Sunil Shastri, son of the soft-spoken if another immortal son of Allahabad, Lal Bahadur Shastri. And as if a mere by-election wasn’t much fun already, a new star, not so well known, emerged on the scene. His name was Kanshi Ram, his party the still little-known Bahujan Samaj Party, and the symbol an unfamiliar blue elephant. Kanshi Ram obviously knew he wouldn’t win. In fact, he was quite sure he would finish third. But he knew that there could be no better occasion to launch his Dalit politics and party than this.
Kanshi Ram was then 54. And his proposition was simple arithmetic: the Harijans (the term Dalit wasn’t used much), other backward classes and minorities constitute 85 per cent of India’s population. Why should they continue to be ruled By Brahmins and Thakurs? And hence the slogan that caught popular imagination: vote hamara, raj tumhara/nahin chalega, nahin chalega.
Kanshi Ram had just one refrain, said crudely but effectively. “For 40 years after Independence, you all have remained animals. This is your chance to become human. Get together and throw out the upper castes’ yoke.” Nobody gave him any chance of winning. But if he collected enough votes, it could mean anything: defeat for Singh, or third place for Shastri. More than one-third of the Allahabad electorate then was Dalit. Many from the backward castes and the Muslims supported him as well.
For reporters like us, new to his method and energy, Kanshi Ram’s campaign was a surprise, and by far the most vigorous of the three. His blue flag and elephant symbol dotted walls all over the constituency. The party’s bicycle squads pedalled furiously and relentlessly through the countryside. His “begging” squads, carrying sealed collection boxes and banners proclaiming ‘The campaign to collect notes with votes’ moved from one Dalit mohalla to another, collecting a little cash and plenty of loyalty. “The money collection is symbolic,” said Kanshi Ram. “Once a poor sweeper pays me even two rupees he will have the self-respect to throw chappals at Congressmen who come to buy his vote.”
The other distinctive thing was his choice of militant rhetoric, in the mould of a Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale or the Gorkhaland movement’s Subhash Ghising. “We ask this government and the ruling castes to decide whether they will give us our rights by ballot or by bullet. If they insist on bullets we are also prepared for that,” he repeated to loud cheers, unfazed by allegations of spreading a new cult of caste violence. “I am not asking my people to attack. But if a caste war breaks out, who will be smashed into chutney and achar? The people who have 100 houses in the village or those that have two?” For his supporters, he was the reincarnation of Bhimrao Ambedkar, but for his critics, nothing but a Fascist casteist. Kanshi Ram couldn’t care less.
Kanshi Ram reacted almost violently to the suggestion of Fascism but made no secret of his fascination for things military and militant. He was now fast distancing himself from separatists and claimed to be a proud child of a military family from Khawaspur village in Punjab’s Rupnagar (then Ropar) district. “I had eight ancestors in World War I, two in the next one,” he would say, and then talk fondly of the two cousins, paracommandos, who were among those killed in Operation Blue Star. He himself, originally, chose an indirect route to a military career by joining the Defence Ministry’s Explosives Research and Development Laboratory (ERDL) in Pune. He worked here for seven years until he started reading Ambedkar and meeting Ambedkarites. As I had then written, he gave up his doctoral work in high explosives to begin dabbling with the powder keg of caste.
Given his military fixation, there was no surprise that he ran the Allahabad campaign in military style. The entire floor of six rooms hired by his party in Hotel Taoosi was the ‘control room’ from which orders were routinely passed to the ‘contact room’, the house of his follower Jang Bahadur Patel. The entire constituency was divided into five ‘garrisons’, each with its own motor-vehicle fleet, ‘supply dumps’ and community kitchens or langars.
Like with special forces, election work was divided among seven squads. These included: a painting squad assigned the task of painting 50,000 blue elephants, printing squad, bicycle squad, begging squad, awakening squad, speakers’ squad, and even an intelligence squad. The intelligence squad, said Kanshi Ram, “deploys 500 people, mostly retired scheduled and backward caste officers from the Intelligence Bureau and Research & Analysis Wing, to find out what is happening in the enemy camp”. Behind this sometimes comical military facade lay an extremely shrewd, ruthless and brilliant mind.
Kanshi Ram had already built a highly secretive band of supporters in government services who formed the backbone of his movement, and gave him money and support. They gave him donations in return for “currency” notes printed by him. “They just keep my notes like souvenirs and give me real cash,” says Kanshi Ram, claiming that he could raise unlimited amounts. Allahabad was his acid test. Only a good performance here would win him credibility in the enormous vote bank he was seeking to take away from the Congress. That is why he chose to contest himself. “I just had to do it, even if it means the defeat of a good leader like V.P. Singh,” he had told me. “It is just too bad but I can’t help it, sorry.”
When votes were counted, V.P. Singh emerged victor and never looked back until he rose to become prime minister in the general election the following year. Sunil Shastri was second. Kanshi Ram, as was widely expected, finished third. But with a creditable 70,000 votes, a lot given how important this contest was and the intensity with which V.P. Singh and the Congress had campaigned. The legend of Kanshi Ram and his BSP was now a reality.
In a ‘Walk The Talk’ interview with me later, Mayawati told me how when she met Kanshi Ram as a young student, she told him she was preparing to be an IAS officer. “But he said, don’t bother, I will make you somebody many IAS officers will dance around,” Mayawati said. The rest, as the old line goes, is history.