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Congress, BJP clash over Ambedkar

Campaigning for the first phase of elections to 124 Lok Sabha seats spread over 17 states and Union territories ended on a shrill note on Tuesday with Manmohan Singh, 76, and LK Advani, 81, now sparring over Dalit icon BR Ambedkar. Vikas Pathak reports. See special

india Updated: Apr 15, 2009 02:20 IST
Vikas Pathak

Campaigning for the first phase of elections to 124 Lok Sabha seats spread over 17 states and Union territories ended on a shrill note on Tuesday with Manmohan Singh, 76, and LK Advani, 81, now sparring over Dalit icon BR Ambedkar.

Flagging off a Dalit Chetna Yatra to appeal to Dalit voters, Advani said: “The Congress never gave Dr Ambedkar his due.

<b1>It defeated him in the first Lok Sabha elections in 1952… Again it was Mahatma Gandhi who prevailed upon Nehru to include Dr Ambedkar in the Cabinet.”

Advani said it was the BJP-supported VP Singh government that gave Ambedkar the highest civilian award, Bharat Ratna, in 1990.

Manmohan Singh got back promptly: “Ambedkar was a pathfinder and much loved by the Congress.” He added sarcastically: “At least the BJP has finally acknowledged Ambedkar. How can anyone say the Congress did not value Ambedkar?”

The Congress was not done. Anand Sharma asked the BJP to sack its leader Arun Shourie, whose book ‘Worshipping False Gods’ called Ambedkar a British collaborator.

This war over Ambedkar shows the growing importance of an increasingly self-conscious Dalit vote, owing its strength both to Dalit numbers and growing education. Dalits constitute above 16 per cent of India’s population. This population is better reflected in the latest delimitation exercise: the number of seats reserved for scheduled caste candidates has gone up from 79 to 84.

In the last Lok Sabha polls, both the Congress and the BJP got a smaller percentage of votes in reserved constituencies than their average vote per constituency, and each would want to expand this vote share.

Add to this the fact that Dalit leader Mayawati, 53, swept India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, in 2007, and it becomes clear why both the Congress and the BJP are so keen to be seen on the right side of Ambedkar.

Without UP, which has 21 per cent Dalits and 80 Lok Sabha seats, the numbers do not add up easily for the BJP or the Congress. And 77 per cent of the state’s Dalits went with Mayawati during the last Assembly polls.

Sixteen seats of eastern UP — where Mayawati has fielded some mafia dons this time — go to the polls on April 16.

Significantly, Advani’s second attack on Congress over Ambedkar in as many months comes after similar attacks by Mayawati on the Congress in recent times.

She had said in 2008 that the Congress was instrumental in Ambedkar’s election defeat in the early 1950s.

The Congress had retaliated to the previous attack from Advani in like fashion, asking the BJP to come clear on Shourie’s book. Shourie himself had stood by his book in a chat with a TV channel soon after.

(With inputs from Nagendar Sharma)