Babasaheb Ambedkar is no more framed as the leader or ideologue of the Dalits only. Instead, now he has been heralded as an esteemed national figure by different political parties, public intellectuals and civil society activists.
Though the mainstream political parties often use Ambedkar’s name and iconography to claim their sensitivity towards the issues of social justice, however beneath such events lay a subtle political plot to mobilise and influence the Dalit voters.
The recent mega musical program organised by the Delhi government on the life and journey of Babasaheb Ambedkar is yet another bold attempt to appropriate Ambedkar’s ideas and personality.
Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal suggested that with such an event, his government wishes to educate the people about Ambedkar’s struggles against social ills and celebrate his contribution as the maker of the modern secular India. However, behind Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) newly found love for Ambedkar, there is a calculated political strategy to consolidate its support base within Delhi’s Dalit voters and to influence the strong Dalit voter base in Punjab.
The Relegation and Appropriation of Ambedkar
For a long, Ambedkar has been belittled as the regional leader of Mahar caste or as the communitarian symbol of Dalit protests in Maharashtra. His substantive contributions in strengthening various struggles for social and economic justice, for advocating women’s rights, for the reorganisation of linguistic states and of course as the chief architect of the Indian Constitution had found few takers in the mainstream national politics.
In the post-1990 politics of north India, Ambedkar became a household name with the forceful arrival of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). It established Ambedkar as the prominent national figure in its campaign and built the party’s image around his personality and ideas.
Soon, several powerful political mobilisations, especially in Tamil Nadu (the Dalit Panthers Party), Bihar (the Lok Janshakti Party), Karnataka (Dalit Sangharsh Samiti) and Maharashtra (the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi) emerged and established Ambedkar as a popular political icon in their respective states. In many other states, a nascent but impressive civil society activism by Dalits further heralded Ambedkar to raise their issues.
When the BSP gained full political power in Uttar Pradesh (2007-12), it constructed marvellous monumental sites (the Rashtriya Dalit Prerna Sthal in Noida and Ambedkar Memorial Park in Lucknow) dedicated to the Dalit-Bahujan icons and cultural histories.
The symbolism crafted under BSP’s new Dalit-Bahujan aesthetics deconstructed the traditional standards of public monuments and provides a dignified space to the subaltern identities in mainstream secular spaces. Ambedkar becomes the robust symbol of marginalised social groups, making other political parties realise that without evoking his name, mobilisation of the Dalit-Bahujan mass would be a difficult task.
In the recent times, political parties that earlier had shown antagonistic apprehensions towards Dalit politics are now trying to appropriate the legacy of Ambedkar. Especially the current leadership of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has consciously rebuilt its image as the party of the subaltern social groups. The Modi government is prominently embracing Ambedkar as a crucial part of Hindu cultural diversity, as a great social reformer and celebrating him as an esteemed nationalist figure. Often, the Prime Minister evokes Ambedkar's name with reverence and suggests that his party is committed to constitutional morality. In order to showcase its affinity towards Ambedkar, the central government rebuilt the majestic Ambedkar National Memorial and impressive Ambedkar International Centre in Delhi. However, BJP’s attempts to appropriate Ambedkar or to influence the Dalit voters, especially in Delhi has not been successful. Instead, in the last two assembly elections in Delhi, the Dalit voters have overtly supported the AAP and rejected the right-wing communal agenda.
Dalits, Ambedkar and AAP
Despite the Dalit population being significant in Delhi (around 17 percent), the community hardly had an independent political assertion in the region. The BSP, in the past, had garnered sizeable vote share, but failed to build an alternative. In the last decade, the AAP under the leadership of Arvind Kejriwal has emerged as a strong political force, gaining wider mass support amongst the middle classes.
AAP offered a quasi-secular and a populist welfarist manifesto and sincerely engaged with the ‘aam’ common masses for their political approvals. Interestingly, the Dalits, Muslims and economically backward classes also gave substantive support to the party, deserting the Congress party.
Though the Dalits in Delhi have lent their support to AAP, for a long time, the party has not offered any serious association with the Dalits. Kejriwal on occasion has evoked Ambedkar’s name with great respect and promised that his regime will be truthful to the cherished constitutional ideals.
However, the Dalits were mostly treated as the general beneficiaries of state’s welfare agenda and only on occasion were Dalit-specific political or economic policies announced (like announcing a course on Ambedkar in school curriculum or offering Overseas fellowships for SC students).
But such distancing appears to be changing now. With the announcement of ‘Babasaheb: The Grand Musical’, the AAP has now claimed that the party also wishes to inherit Ambedkar’s legacy. The party realised that to strengthen its support amongst the Dalits, it needs to provide certain community-centric benefits. It is imperative for the party to offer populist cultural gestures towards the Dalit cultural symbols mainly to attract and retain them in its fold. Apart from consolidating its vote base in Delhi, the AAP understands its possible impact in the Punjab assembly elections where it has a substantive presence. The Dalit population is huge in Punjab and if a sizeable section amongst the Dalits vote for AAP, it can emerge as the biggest contender for power in the state.
The Musical Show: Mainstreaming of Ambedkar As a Secular-Socialist Icon
The Dalit theatrical practice in Maharashtra has a rich tradition of presenting socially relevant theatre, including mega stage events on the lives of Ambedkar and Buddha (like Yugyatra, Mahamanav, Tathagat, etc.). Often these plays are performed by local artists, produced on meagre investments, and depict radical Dalit perspectives.
Delhi Government’s ‘Babasaheb: the Musical’, a two-week long mega stage event has elevated the popular cultural practices associated with the Dalits and Ambedkar with its grandeur and professional finesse. It is a spectacular show that stages crucial episodes of Ambedkar’s socio-political life with sensitivity and presents him as a secular-nationalist leader of the struggling masses.
Directed by Mahua Chauhan, this show is an awesome visual treat. Rohit Roy as Ambedkar is impressive. However, more than the story and the performances, the audience is mesmerised by astonishing revolving stage and stunning light-sound effects. Being a musical, it gives an opera-like feel where the contemporary dancers and artists march on stage to perform beautiful acts on the soul-soothing compositions by the popular music band Indian Ocean. Together, it creates a high-voltage emotional experience.
In one act, we see giant marionettes roam in the hall as a metaphor of caste-demons, hovering around and over Ambedkar. The legends of Ambedkar’s struggle, grit and leadership are woven carefully, providing a brilliant glimpse of his magnificent stature.
With this show, the AAP lays a claim on Ambedkar as part of its secular political agenda. Writer Kausar Munir scripted the show not necessarily on the established historical facts but also by creatively borrowing from oral traditions. For example, showcasing that one of the Brahmin teachers had offered little Bhimrao his own name (Ambedkar), or the act where Mahatma Gandhi insisted that Ambedkar must be inducted into the Constituent Assembly, are contested facts but part of public imaginations. Further, his shift to Buddhism is depicted as his personal quest (rather than mass conversion) to find a humanitarian, spiritual space. Depicting Ambedkar with such artistic liberties may be necessary to create an acceptable version of Ambedkar’s life for the general masses.
The Symbol of Ambedkar
Today, Ambedkar is mainstream: from political protests, to cultural spaces, to cinema and social media - his legends are inspiring us all. Ambedkar emotionally connects the vulnerable and marginalised communities and inspires them to fight against social injustices.
Often, the mainstream political parties use Ambedkar’s name for Dalit mobilisation, but eventually such interventions also introduce the non-Dalits to his maverick personality and exemplary leadership. The Delhi government’s mega musical event further liberates Ambedkar from communitarian essentialism and promotes him as a dignified symbol for all the struggling people.
In the context of the growing right-wing hegemony and communal tensions, the mainstreaming of Ambedkar as a secular-nationalist icon of the struggling people is a welcome attempt. It is equally important that such populist gestures shall move beyond the symbolic cultural contexts and connect with the deprived marginalised groups on the substantive social and economic issues. Celebration of Ambedkar as a nationalist icon will find meaning only when the issues and concerns of the most marginalized social groups also get similar mainstream platform and popular voice.
(Dr. Harish S Wankhede teaches at Centre for Political Studies, JNU, New Delhi. He often thinks and writes on identity politics, Dalit questions, Hindi cinema and the new media. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)