Political scientist, economist, jurist, social reformer, architect of India’s Constitution, and a leader of men: Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, a multifaceted personality with varied interests, defies attempts at classification and categorisation. But with his singular drive for the uplift of the poor and the weaker sections, he became an inspirational figure during his lifetime and a national icon in the decades thence. Not surprisingly, despite his later differences with the Congress, and his opposition to the politics of social hate and communal divides, Ambedkar is now sought to be appropriated by both the Congress and the BJP as part of their political mobilisation strategies. The two parties have planned year-long celebrations to mark his 125th birth anniversary year beginning today. While the Congress’s claim to the Ambedkar legacy, though disputed, is nothing new, the BJP’s decision to mark the anniversary with elaborate events marks a change in its approach to his life and work. However, instead of projecting the change in approach as a change in its own attitude to Ambedkar, the BJP and its ideological fount, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, seem to be intent on a selective reading of Ambedkar as a Hindu nationalist. His conversion to Buddhism in 1956, and his opposition to the oppressive caste hierarchy in Hinduism do not seem to have mattered for the RSS, whose joint secretary Krishna Gopal has brought out a booklet highlighting the supposed affinities between Ambedkar and Hindu nationalism such as his opposition to the theory of Aryan invasion, and to conversion to Islam.
Central to the attempts to appropriate Ambedkar’s political legacy is the consolidation of Dalit votes. Dalit representative parties such as the Republican Party of India have entered into alliances with the BJP, but the focus of the BJP now seems to be to enlist Dalits directly into the party. Memorials, statues and commemorative volumes on his life and work are evidently part of this effort. For the Congress, the Ambedkar birth anniversary events are meant to stem the erosion in its support base among Dalit groups. That the political contestation for Ambedkar’s legacy has gained an added edge now is proof of the success of the efforts at organising Dalits as a political force. But none of this adds up to providing greater space for Ambedkar’s views on social justice and social democracy in the Indian polity. Sadly, while there is a growing reverence for Ambedkar among the political class, and a greater recognition of his contribution to nation-building, his ideas have not found ready acceptance. In this, he is one with Mahatma Gandhi — someone who is admired, but whose views are hardly adhered to.