Many years ago, the frenzied search for an elusive sound bite led me to climb a perilously shaky electric pole. I clambered with painful desperation in my attempt to enter a fortified hospital room where Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader Kanshi Ram was convalescing.
The UP assembly was in suspended animation and the BSP held the key to the future. When we managed to get past the security cordon, a visibly agitated Kanshi Ram remarked, “I will go with neither the BJP nor the Samajwadi Party. Both are manuwaadi forces. One is a python, the other a cobra!” Within 48 hours, the BSP leader had cemented an alliance with the BJP and Mayawati was the first Dalit Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh.
The flip-flop was quintessential Kanshi Ram. Few Indian politicians have mastered the art of political unpredictability in the manner of the BSP chieftain. It was a deliberate strategy, designed to create a constant state of political instability. His critics saw it as rank opportunism, his supporters saw it as an instrument of backward caste assertion. Kanshi Ram’s own explanation was more prosaic: political flux was necessary to wield the “master key” to unlock the gates of power.
In that sense, Kanshi Ram was remarkably different from any Dalit politician before or since. Until his arrival, Dalit politics was shaped by two dominant strands. The first was the politics of the early Ambedkarites, who saw education and agitation as key to upward mobility. The Dalit Panthers were perhaps the most articulate exponents of this political trajectory, their rebelliousness couched in powerful literature and street-fighting tactics. It was ideologically appealing, but politically limiting.
The second group of Dalit leaders were those co-opted by the upper castes — politicians who remained under the paternalistic Congress umbrella. Jagjivan Ram was a classic example of this tradition, which has stretched right down to Sushil Kumar Shinde, seen as a front-runner for presidency next year.
Kanshi Ram changed the grammar of Dalit-Bahujan politics. He took it out of the lofty Ambedkar seminar circuit and the comfort of the Congress elite by giving it a ruthless streak of realpolitik. He was an organiser par excellence and built large associations such as DS4 and Bamcef before founding the BSP in 1984. His goal was clear: he wanted the political pyramid to be ‘horizontal’, not vertical; one in which the Bahujan Samaj would share power, not simply be a benign supporter of the prevailing order.
His most famous slogan — ‘Tilak, taraju aur talwar, inko maaro joote char’ — reflected his core philosophy of creating a state of permanent caste antagonisms in which his supporters would look the upper caste ‘enemy’ in the eye. Not for him the ritual deification of Ambedkar by building statues and renaming universities. Nor the persistent demand for increased reservations that seemed to be the calling card of all other Dalit-Bahujan politicians. As he put it, “Reservation is a crutch, useful for a cripple, but a positive handicap for someone who wants to run on his own two feet.”
His sartorial preferences reflected his persona. He did not care for the jacket-and-tie respectability that Dalit intellectuals seemed to take pride in. Instead, with a towel around his neck, a loosely buttoned, crumpled shirt and chappals, Kanshi Ram was a man determined to defy the established norms by positioning himself as a combative, plainspeaking, often dictatorial messiah of the marginalised. He lacked the easy charm of a Lalu (recall his shameful behaviour in attacking journalists outside his house); he did not have the demagoguery of a Vajpayee (a Kanshi Ram speech was an exercise in incoherence); yet, he must rank with the Lalu-Vajpayee duo as the foremost mass politician of the last decade.
A party of Dalits and backwards is now perhaps the number one party in Uttar Pradesh. Kanshi Ram’s dream of being a ‘ticket giver’ has been realised. The BSP voter mobilisation has been a triumph of the secretive, silent and formidably-organised BSP cadres. All these facts are a tribute to the powerful base of support that Kanshi Ram was able to build and organise. The early years of the BSP were full of setbacks and electoral losses. But Kanshi Ram soldiered on. Looking at the power the BSP enjoys today, it is easy to forget where this party came from.
And yet, for all his achievements, Kanshi Ram’s legacy remains deeply flawed. It is one thing to make social exclusion the basis of a political identity; it is quite another to use that sense of grievance and anger to build a personal empire. Unfortunately, that is exactly what Kanshi Ram and, more particularly, his chosen successor, Mayawati, ended up doing. Palatial party offices, opulent residences and acres of farm land: it would seem that those who claimed to represent the interests of the poor and the backward have merely piggybacked on them to accumulate their own treasure chests. By auctioning tickets to the highest bidder, the BSP seems to have become a political casino (note the number of wealthy Brahmins who are now BSP ticket-seekers).
Mayawati’s supporters have argued that the charges of disproportionate assets — running into hundred of crores — are an ‘upper caste’ conspiracy. How different is their Bahenji’s case from the slew of upper caste politicians’ who have accumulated even more unaccounted wealth, they ask. Why don’t the media shriek when Mayawati’s rivals build Grecian bungalows littered with gold and marble? Why is Mayawati’s birthday bash singled out for censure while politicians who book entire hotels for their children’s birthdays are winked at?
Persuasive arguments, imperfect conclusion. A system steeped in corruption cannot be a justification for individual self-aggrandisement. Moreover, it reveals the basic flaw in the mental make-up of the so-called socio-political revolutionaries of the Mandal movement. Whenever their failings are exposed, their sole defence is to blame their misfortune on class and caste bias. The long-suffering Dalit-Bahujan as ‘victim’ of an inherently unjust system is an attractive ideological construct (and not untrue), but unfortunately it has been used too often. Whether it’s Lalu’s fodder scam or Mayawati’s Taj Corridor case, the Mandal leaders and their kin have always attempted to make caste hatred the basis for their predicament.
The tragedy is that the real victims of caste bias are not the political leadership of the Dalit-Bahujan Samaj but its vast multitudes. Travel to any Mayawati rally in the heart of UP, and the support she enjoys is astonishing. In this age when political parties struggle to gather crowds, Mayawati can draw thousands without having to pay for their bus ride. In their eyes, one senses hope that somehow their leader will deliver them from their life of deprivation.
This hope has been interpreted by the BSP’s ideological supporters as a sign of a new voice, a genuine empowerment of those who have been discriminated against for centuries. The fact, though, is that the voices have a false ring to them, the hopeful eyes are only witnessing a political charade being played out at their expense, one in which the only real beneficiaries are the rabble-rousing leaders. For parties like the BSP, the voters have become only a fertile catchment area, not a robust coming of age of a new order. To that extent, politicians like Kanshi Ram and Mayawati represent the strengths and limitations of identity politics. What perhaps started off as a genuine movement for empowerment of the Bahujan Samaj has ended up as a palace coup that has struggled to go beyond Uttar Pradesh. And that is a real pity.