BAHUJAN SAMAJ Party (BSP) supremo Kanshi Ram will be remembered as the man who wrested political space from the Congress in its traditional stronghold -- Uttar Pradesh -- and made his party a major player in many other northern states.
Often the final outcome of elections in these states during the past 15 years depended on the votes his candidates polled. The BSP candidates did not always win, but by polling a good number of votes, they acted as 'spoilers', jeopardising the political careers of many rival politicians. Important leaders, including HRD Minister Arjun Singh, repeatedly lost elections from constituencies they once had full control over, because of BSP nominees who cut into their vote base.
Alliances have become crucial in Indian politics, yet in the identity ridden political scenario of the northern Indian states they often do not work on the ground. Parties come together in a state capital, but their cadres and voters in the districts rarely work for, or vote for, the candidate of an alliance partner.
Kanshi Ram was one of the few political leaders who could effortlessly 'transfer' his candidate's votes to another party, if an alliance demanded it. His followers obeyed 'manyavar' (sir), as they all called him, implicitly.
His demise may not make any immediate difference to the BSP. He had been politically inactive since he suffered a brain haemorrhage three years ago. Besides even before that he had named his protégé Mayawati as his political heir. Her supremacy remains unchallenged in the party.
When asked how Kanshi Ram's demise would impact Dalit politics, Union minister Meira Kumar, daughter of the late Jagjiwan Ram, chose not to make any elaborate comment. She merely said, "My condolences to his family but he had not really been active for quite some time."
She was right, but her unwillingness to mouth platitudes on praise for Kanshi Ram even on his death, underlined the intense rivalry between Dalit politicians in different parties.
Meira Kumar had defeated Mayawati in their first electoral battle in Bijnore in December 1985. Both were contesting for the first time.
Kanshi Ram's rise in politics coincided with the fading away and subsequent demise of Jagjiwan Ram. He was the first leader outside the Congress fold to catch the imagination of Dalits after B.R. Ambedkar. But Ambedkar was never really a force to reckon with in the north and Kanshi Ram filled that vacuum with his arrival. His dictum was “educate, organise and agitate”.
Early in his life, when he was with the department of defence production and influenced by his friend D.K. Kharpade, Kanshi Ram had decided to fight for social justice and against the exploitation by the upper castes.
Although he commenced his activist role with the All India Backward and Minority Employees Federation, he was looking forward to a bigger political role.
In 1981, he decided to form the Dalit Soshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti (DS4) to create a political movement for mobilising Dalits. Since it was unable to meet its objectives fully, he floated the BSP in 1984.
Being from the Raedasi Sikh community and hailing from Punjab, Kanshi Ram got a boost initially from the interest the Congress showed in his outfit in the early Eighties. There appeared to be a tacit political understanding and Kanshi Ram was happy splitting the anti-Congress votes in Punjab — which would have gone to the Akalis — while consolidating his own position during the period of militancy.
The BSP supremo, who had to cross swords with others claiming the Dalit constituency, contested against V.P. Singh in a by-election in 1987 to signal his distancing from the Congress. In 1991, he finally made it to Parliament from Etawah in UP.
Kanshi Ram was conscious that with Ambedkar’s philosophy becoming increasingly acceptable in north India, and the Congress losing its traditional vote bank, it was time to step up his political initiative. This paid rich dividends and the high point was when Mayawati became the chief minister of UP in 1995.
Kanshi Ram and Mayawati, who aggressively campaigned against ‘Manuwadis’ and the upper castes, had subsequently realised the importance of carrying other castes with them.
They had softened their attack on Manuwadis so much so that after Rajnath Singh was appointed BJP president, Brahmins and Banias in UP looked at the BSP to provide them leadership. Muslims too moved towards the BSP and Mulayam Singh Yadav and in a sense the BSP had succeeded in appropriating what was originally the Congress vote bank in UP.