As the social scientist Badri Narayan has observed, ‘If Babasaheb Ambedkar were alive today, he would probably have been quite amazed to see how political parties with completely different ideologies are vying with each other to associate themselves with his persona.’ For Narayan, Ambedkar’s life and work have been reinvented and reimagined ‘to occupy a larger space in the public imagination’ than ever before.
Narayan attributes this to Dalits becoming more politically aware than in the past and political parties using their proclaimed commitment to Ambedkar’s vision as their instrument of political outreach to Dalit voters. Yashica Dutt, echoing Ananya Vajpeyi, argues that it is precisely because he opposed them: ‘his blunt analyses about complex power structures were too dangerous for the upper-caste establishment’, and it was safer to neutralise Ambedkar by appropriating him:
The BJP, known for its astute political strategy, discovered that Ambedkar was a clear and direct path to Dalits and their votes. But they couldn’t possibly risk engaging with his ideas, which directly attack their foundational principles and would not be palatable to the powerful upper-caste vote bank. So they appropriated Ambedkar but did not discuss his philosophy or his criticism of the established power structure. By aligning with Ambedkar’s image, which has been a symbol for Dalit rights, they would like to project themselves as a political party that stands for equality. But most political parties want nothing to do with his ideas.
The decision of the Aam Aadmi Party government elected in Punjab in 2022 to display portraits of Dr Ambedkar (as well as the freedom fighter Bhagat Singh) in government offices was one more example of the iconic status he has now attained in India.
It can, of course, be suggested that the decision was merely a cynical ploy for the Dalit vote, which is estimated at some 16.6 per cent of the electorate. But that too represents a significant change from Ambedkar’s day, when Dalits found themselves being taken for granted, especially since they were outnumbered by caste Hindu voters even in the constituencies reserved for Dalit candidates.
Today, the Left parties, the right-wing BJP, the centrist Congress, and the non-ideological AAP have all expressed their admiration for Ambedkar, decades after mainstream politicians doing so might have made a difference in his own life.
Strikingly, Ambedkar might well have derived greater satisfaction from the birth of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), led by Kanshi Ram and later Mayawati, which established the principle that Dalits would be better off representing themselves through a party dedicated principally to their own advancement, rather than by seeking benefits from mainstream political parties vying for their votes.
Indeed, the BSP formula has resulted in Mayawati being elected three times as chief minister of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh – a Dalit woman in command of the government of India’s Hindi heartland, something unthinkable for perhaps 3,000 years before her ascent to power in Aryavrata at the cusp of the twenty-first century.
It was a vindication of Ambedkar’s conviction that Dalits needed to assert themselves politically, rather than depend on the grace and favour of the ‘upper’ castes.
But he himself was never able, through any of the parties he established, to achieve meaningful political power—except as a parliamentarian appointed by the larger nationalist party, the Congress.
Similarly, in his own lifetime, the combative Ambedkar had never been regarded as a contender for high national honours; yet in 1990, thirty-four years after his death, the minority government of Prime Minister VP Singh, anxious to shore up its levels of political support, awarded him the country’s highest honour, the Bharat Ratna.
Ambedkar statues continue to proliferate around the country, but they are getting bigger and more majestic as the competitive adulation of Ambedkar in statuary proceeds apace. The ‘Statue of Knowledge’, a 70-foot tall statue of Ambedkar, was unveiled in Latur city, Maharashtra, in April 2022.92 Soon followed an announcement from the state of Telangana that a 125-foot-tall statue of Ambedkar would soon be installed at NTR Gardens near Hussain Sagar Lake in Hyderabad. Maharashtra, not to be outdone, declared that work on a memorial to Ambedkar in his native Mumbai was ‘progressing smoothly and the world-class monument is expected to be completed by March 2024’.
With a budget of Rs 1,000 crore and made of bronze and steel, it will be the tallest Ambedkar statue in the world at 450 feet, standing as high as a fifty-storey building and weighing 80 tons. The site will feature other Ambedkar memorabilia and a replica of Chawdar Lake, the site of his first agitation. (There is already a more modest memorial in Airoli in Navi Mumbai, which also features a library dedicated to Ambedkar’s life and works.)
On 19 May 2022, the state government of Andhra Pradesh went one better and announced it wished to rename its Konaseema district as the Dr BR Ambedkar Konaseema district.
The government has issued a notification inviting objections and suggestions from the people residing within Konaseema on the proposal to rename the district. It is considered highly unlikely that anyone would object. It is only a matter of time before another state government decides to take the next step and name an entire city after Ambedkar. All this would been greeted with incredulity in India just fifty years ago, but it is a measure of how much Ambedkar’s stature has grown.
The attitude of India’s newly-dominant Hindutva movement towards Ambedkar has also evolved. Initially dismissive of him for his savage remarks on Hinduism and his mobilisation of the Dalits – which went against the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)’s emphasis on Hindu unity – the Hindutva movement was relieved when he chose to convert to Buddhism, an Indic faith, rather than to Islam or Christianity, and began speaking of him with respect after his death.
Two prominent RSS ideologues, Dattopant Thengadi and Dr Krishna Gopal, even authored books on Ambedkar. The RSS duly celebrated Ambedkar’s birth centenary, and Mahatma Jyotiba Phule’s death centenary, in 1990, praising them for their efforts to reform Hindu society and rid it of discriminatory practices and injustices. By the time of his 125th birthday, the BJP was in full celebration mode, and their attempts to appropriate him have proceeded apace, with Prime Minister Modi frequently invoking Ambedkar in his speeches and BJP grandees conspicuous by their presence at local ‘Ambedkar Jayanti’ celebrations on his birth anniversary each year. In 2022, the BJP extended the observance to an entire ‘social justice week’ commencing on Ambedkar’s birthday.
Excerpted with permission from Ambedkar: A Life, Shashi Tharoor, Aleph Book Company.