The battle for metaphor and legacies in modern democracies has been quite intense. Our own democracy has been undergoing such deep convulsions at the moment that political parties can ill-afford to leave public sphere to be appropriated by forces inimical to their real and perceived interests. The keenness to demonstrate B R Ambedkar close to their own political worldview by both the Indian National Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party during his 124th birth centenary celebration is part of the efforts, therefore, of political parties to colour the boundaries of a political imagination of the future.
Ambedkar has long been the icon of a sectarian politics and legacy of an intense and yet fragmentary political space. An interesting dialectic of an increasing space that the Dalits began to occupy in the emerging political order and the exhaustion of the same sectarian politics which made this possible have now provided the larger political formations like the Congress, the BJP and also the Communist the opportunity to claim him and his legacy. As we travel away from the time of the actual anti-colonial struggle in the 1930s and 1940s, the struggle in post-independent period as well as the myths of struggles not fought is increasingly taking sway of the public imagination through processes of myth making and and new histories of old struggles. And, it is here that Ambedkar occupies a pride of place. The centrality of his role in the unfolding histories is further emphasised with an increasing intransigence with which the roles of the other icons like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru is vandalised by the new histories of a prosperous India.
Ambedkar has been an icon for millions of struggling Dalits with little resources or education. His life and work bring meaning to their own lives and struggles in contemporary times. As millions of them move into the centre stage of our political democracy, he becomes all the more relevant for the political formations or even the intellectuals to claim their proximity to him and his ideas and struggles. In an atmosphere where political correctness also began to shape the boundaries of political discourse, proximity to Ambedkar is also proximity to politically correct democratic behaviour.
It is in this context of modern India's political life that the fight for Ambedkar's legacy is reaching a new station. For the Congress, a party of history and historical personalities, the effort to own up Ambedkar at this opportune time can be both a natural and at the same time politically expedient act. It was the Congress, which notwithstanding Ambedkar's long time fight against it, invited him to be the law minister and also be the chairperson of the draft committee of the Constitution. It was not mandated to do that and yet it recognised the talent and passion in the man. Honoured him. Thus Congress' decision to celebrate his 124 years may not be a great departure except the fact that there are so many equally talented and passionate national heroes, who failed to receive such official recognition of the party for which they lived their lives. It is this non-recognition of the others that makes the decision to own up Ambedkar look politically expedient. One must, however, keep in mind that it is not aimed at historical restoration, but for future movement into the spaces vacated by other forces.
For the Congress, which wishes to be inclusive, Ambedkar can both be a metaphor and an instrument. Ambedkar's entry also helps it in the long run to blunt the historical hostility that the Dalit intellectuals and politics had for Gandhi, who they had argued stood for the upper caste domination. Ambedkar had all along talked about the rights and the language of rights in an unequal society takes time to get universally accepted and naturalised. Congress, therefore, tries and naturalise Ambedkar and occupy spaces opening up from the grip of the Dalit parties.
The Dalit consolidation in recent years have proved that there is nothing inherently anti-communal or anti-Hindutva about it. And it is here the BJP rightfully has come to welcome the opportunity available at its disposal in appropriating Ambedkar. With its enlarged mass base when it is no longer seen as the Brahmin party, it is for the first time that the BJP can do this without necessarily antagonising its core constituency. However, unlike Congress which is rooted in its own historical context and ideological moorings, the BJP has a sense of purposive and imagined history and therefore works in a pragmatic manner to achieve that history. Ambedkar helps it to fill in the spaces available but also provide it with an icon who could help it in his ongoing historical project of displacing Gandhi and Nehru from the estimation of the future citizenry of the Republic.
Gandhi fought the most powerful struggle for amelioration of the depressed classes. Nehru fought for a secular and modern world where equality will be entrenched as a social and political virtue. One sees a connect of a secular polity with the provisions of affirmative policies. In polities like Pakistan or Bangladesh there is no room for affirmative policies. Placing Ambedkar on an antipode to the politics of Nehru and Gandhi, therefore, will be undoing of the affirmative politics. It is here that the BJP shall be in a position to use an appropriated Ambedkar against the party's long term anti-figures, Nehru and Gandhi. Thus, Ambedkar can provide the party a present day icon who while helping them displace the established icons of the present day secular state, offers no more than mere small irritations in its efforts at larger Hindu consolidation. It also helps it naturalise the processes on ground.
The map of inequality is transcending the old spaces and castes. One wonders whether Ambedkar still holds any promise for a future struggle against this emerging order. At present the Congress and BJP too show no such promise either. Such appropriation, therefore, naturally meets a cynical opprobrium. Babasaheb, however, remains enshrined in the memory of the day to day struggles of millions and therefore honouring him reignites the public sphere with signs of hope. It is this hope which remains the oxygen for our democracy.
(The views of the author are personal. He teaches at the Centre for Media Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University and is the author of JNU: The Making of a University.)