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Look backward in anguish

Kanshi Ram saw himself as a messiah of the marginalised. History will judge him less kindly, writes Rajdeep Sardesai.

india Updated: Oct 13, 2006 02:53 IST

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 ofUttar 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 ofpolitical instability. His critics saw it as rank opportunism, his supporters saw it as an instrument ofbackward caste assertion. Kanshi Ram’s own explanation was more prosaic: political flux was necessary to wield the “master key” to unlock the gates ofpower.

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 ofthis political trajectory, their rebelliousness couched in powerful literature and street-fighting tactics. It was ideologically appealing, but politically limiting.

The second group ofDalit leaders were those co-opted by the upper castes — politicians who remained under the paternalistic Congress umbrella. Jagjivan Ram was a classic example ofthis tradition, which has stretched right down to Sushil Kumar Shinde, seen as a front-runner for presidency next year.

Kanshi Ram changed the grammar ofDalit-Bahujan politics. He took itout ofthe lofty Ambedkar seminar circuit and the comfort ofthe Congress elite by giving it a ruthless streak ofrealpolitik. 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 ofthe prevailing order.

His most famous slogan — ‘Tilak, taraju aur talwar, inko maaro joote char’ — reflected his core philosophy ofcreating a state ofpermanent caste antagonisms in which his supporters would look the upper caste ‘enemy’ in the eye. Not for him the ritual deification ofAmbedkar by buildingstatues 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 himselfas a combative, plainspeaking, often dictatorial messiah ofthe marginalised. He lacked the easy charm ofa Lalu (recall his shameful behaviour in attacking journalists outside his house); he did not have the demagoguery ofa Vajpayee (a Kanshi Ram speech was an exercise in incoherence); yet, he must rank with the Lalu-Vajpayee duo as the foremost mass politician ofthe 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 ofthe 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 remainsdeeply flawed. It is one thing to make social exclusion the basis of a political identity; it is quite another to use that sense ofgrievance 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 ofthe 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 ofwealthy 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 ofupper 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 ofthe so-called socio-political revolutionaries ofthe 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’ ofan 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 ofthe Dalit-Bahujan Samaj but its vast multitudes. Travel to any Mayawati rally in the heart ofUP, 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 ofa 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 ofa new order. To that extent, politicians like Kanshi Ram and Mayawati represent the strengths and limitations ofidentity politics. What perhaps started off as a genuine movement for empowerment ofthe Bahujan Samaj has ended up as a palace coup that has struggled to go beyond Uttar Pradesh. And that is a real pity.

Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-Chief, CNN-IBN and IBN 7
sardesai.rajdeep@gmail.com

First Published: Oct 13, 2006 00:01 IST