Hindutva at heart, Ambedkar on sleeve

Updated - March 01, 2010 02:20 am IST

Published - March 01, 2010 01:11 am IST - Mumbai

Nitin Gadkari, President of Bharatiya Janata Party

Nitin Gadkari, President of Bharatiya Janata Party

It’s a riddle as old as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Dalit agenda. How to play a Dalit card from a pack called Hindutva? BJP president Nitin Gadkari played one recently in Mau, the birthplace of B.R. Ambedkar. He garlanded Dr. Ambedkar’s statue and lunched at a Dalit household, fuelling comparisons with Rahul Gandhi.

However, politically, the BJP has a different set of considerations underlying its token gestures to the Dalits.

The Hindutva-driven party lacks the ideological groundwork for effecting social equality and undoing Brahminical hegemony, as envisioned by the Dalit movement. In fact, its religious backbone poses a major challenge to its Dalit agenda.

“With religion as its background for politics, the BJP will have to address whether they have accepted the Ambedkarites. They have now started looking at the Ambedkarite Dalits. In Nagpur, the party got hold of some Buddhist monks. But, what is the BJP’s plan for social equalisation? In the Bangalore session, they had passed a resolution against caste-based reservations,” says Prakash Ambedkar, leader of the Bharatiya Bahujan Mahasangh (BBM).

As Mr. Ambedkar highlights, Dalits never formed part of the caste system. Kept outside the Hindu fold, they became followers of particular sects — like the Ravidasis, Kabirpantis. “This class will always clamour for a religious identity — Buddhist, Islamic or Christian. The [BJP] is experimenting with those Dalits who have not converted themselves. It is trying to organise Dalit-Hindus and get Dalit forces behind them. So far, they have not succeeded,” he says.

Suhas Palshikar, professor of politics at Pune University says: “For some time the BJP and more particularly the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] have been aware that in order to make the Hindutva platform more effective, they need to attract the Dalits and Adivasis as Hindus.

The Samarasata Manch was started by the RSS long back in early 1990s. In that sense, this recent development is not exactly new. Even during the Ram ‘janmabhoomi’ agitation, the RSS and the VHP did try to bring in Dalit and Adivasi workers.

In Maharashtra, this strategy appears problematic because the RPI [Republican Party of India] and most Dalit-Buddhist organisations are very critical of Hindutva and Hindu religion. But elsewhere, where conversion to Buddhism has not been a very large scale and effective strategy among Dalit activists, the issue of relationship with the Hindu religion and Hindutva has not been so complex or politically sensitive.

Sections of the Dalit community, who see themselves mainly as Hindus, would easily be attracted to any cultural-political appeal in the name of Hindu religion. More so, when the RSS and the BJP are now taking a stand that they reject the idea of untouchability.”

Given the small size of the Dalit vote base, the BJP’s focus spelt out at the Indore meet of reaching out to the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes, minorities and weaker sections is a way of exploring new ground within the framework of Hindutva.

Sudhir Mungantiwar, BJP-MLA from Vidarbha, terms the Dalit buzz on Dalit agenda a “media creation.” “Yes our vote share has to go up by 10 per cent. Our focus is on the poorest of the poor. Those who speak of a purposeful Dalit agenda are mistaken,” he states.

Mr. Palshikar observes: “It is not clear whether the BJP is ready to reassess its overall politics. Mr. Gadkari is unlikely to downplay the Hindutva ideology and, therefore, unlikely to understand the reasons for the party’s downslide since 2004.

“In this context, the wooing of the Dalits can be seen as a limited effort to expand its base. Ideologically, it is far more relevant to the BJP and the RSS since they claim to be a party of Hindus. The onus is on them to ensure that all sections of the Hindu community are among their support base.

“Finally, in net practical-political terms, this strategy will help them in the States where they already have a base — Gujarat, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh — and it may also marginally help in Bihar and Karnataka. In Maharashtra, the intra-Dalit competition has always meant that the Matang and Charmakar communities are available for mobilisation by various parties. The BJP and the Shiv Sena have reaped the dividend since 1995.”

Mr. Palshikar feels that “critics of Hindutva politics have always chosen to believe that Dalits would ipso facto be opposed to RSS and its Hindutva. This assumption is wrong; for that to happen, political and ideological training of the Dalit [and/or Adivasi] masses would be required.”

According to Mr. Ambedkar, the Ambedkarites outnumber the Hindu-Dalits, the ratio being 80:20 in some parts.

The voting pattern in the last Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha elections in Maharashtra suggests a small shift in Dalit votes towards the BJP-Shiv Sena and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena in some pockets of Mumbai, Vidarbha and Marathwada — a manifestation of the anger towards the Congress’ inaction, he opines.

With Mr. Gadkari at the helm of party affairs, and backed by the RSS, a concerted effort to woo Dalits-Adivasis is likely.

“His intention of bringing in other communities is clear. He wants to change the Brahmin face of his party,” remarks Raju Mishra, author of Janadesh — a book on Vidarbha’s politics.

In Nagpur, Mr. Gadkari’s hometown and the RSS’ headquarters, experiments with Dalits have been under way. A BBM member from Nagpur, Milind Pakahle, says: “Mr. Gadkari invited Buddhist monks for his birthday.

Then, visiting Nagpur on becoming the national president, he first met RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat and later announced plans to visit the Diksha Bhoomi [the site where Dr. Ambedkar and his followers converted to Buddhism]. Moreover, RSS-backed frontal organisations, like the Bharat-Tibet Maitri Sangh and the Anusuchit Jati-Jamati Arakshan Bachao Parishad — the latter being just six months old — headed by Dalits, are seeking to make headway.”

However, the riddle remains unsolved. As an Ambedkar scholar from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, who did not wish to be named, told The Hindu , “It is historically impossible to woo the Ambedkarite Dalits. The common Dalit voter still has a commitment. You cannot have [Dr.] Ambedkar and be right wing at the same time. There is a structural contradiction.”

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