The Bharatiya Janata Party has a dismal past and lacks leaders of its own, which is why it is often accused of appropriating leaders belonging to other parties.
Of late, Prime Minister Narendra Modi too has been naming different leaders as his inspiration on different occasions and platforms.
“There were three great individuals who influenced and shaped Indian political thought in the last century,” Modi said in his speech at a public meeting in Kozhikode, Kerala, where he had gone to attend his party’s National Council’s meeting on September 24.
“They were Mahatma Gandhi, Deendayal Upadhyaya and [Ram Manohar] Lohia," he said. "Their thoughts and reflections are manifest in Indian politics today too.”
He was proud, Modi said, that one of three greatest political thinkers belonged to his party.
It is indeed good that he spelled out whom he considers to be the greatest thinkers of the 20th century. Clearly, he does not consider BR Ambedkar as important as the three he named.
But that was not the impression one got earlier.
“The credit for someone like me, whose mother washed neighbours’ utensils, becoming the prime minister goes to Dr Ambedkar," Modi had said in April 2015, when he visited Mhow, Ambedkar's birthplace in Madhya Pradesh, on his birth anniversary.
In other words, Modi was saying, without Ambedkar’s work it would not have been possible for someone belonging to the Other Backward Classes to have become the prime minister of India.
But that was when he was trying to woo the Dalits.
It is important to try and understand Modi’s choices for the greatest thinkers who influenced and shaped Indian political thought in the 20th century.
That Gandhi should figure in any such list is almost a given.
Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, who has been treated by Indian and foreign scholars as one of the greatest 20th century thinkers of India, quite expectedly, does not figure. The BJP – and Modi in particular – for quite some time has been trying to erase his name from that list and that could be understood.
But what about Ambedkar? It is interesting to look at the other two who are included.
Would Upadhyaya make the cut in any objective listing that is not done by those belonging to Modi’s political persuasion?
And, as for Lohia being elevated to this stature, perhaps we should remember that he has some influence in Uttar Pradesh, a state that is going to elections in early 2017.
Let us also not forget that Gandhi and Lohia are Baniyas and Upadhyaya is a Brahmin.
But why exclude Ambedkar?
Quite some years back, the University Grants Commission asked a team of experts – I was one among them – to suggest a list of epoch-making thinkers of India, ancient and modern. By that time I had published my PhD thesis on Gautham Buddha’s Political Philosophy as a book with the title God as Political Philosopher. I argued for Buddha to be treated as the greatest ancient thinker of the world.
But the most common names suggested by most of the experts on modern thinkers, who they thought had made the maximum impact on the Indian thought process, happened to be Gandhi, Ambedkar and Nehru. Other names like Lohia, Raja Rammohan Roy, Jayapraksh Narayan and so on were also named.
But the majority were of the view that Gandhi, Ambedkar and Nehru, in that order, must be adopted.
For the ancient period, the names of Kautilya, Manu along with Buddha were suggested but the majority felt that Buddha’s role as an institution builder and moral and utopian thinker was far greater than Kautilya and Manu, who were also responsible for many negative ideas.
In my student days, only Kautilya and Manu used to be taught as the greatest ancient thinkers. Buddha was not included in this list of thinkers. But once the UGC selected Buddha as an epoch-making thinker, universities started teaching him as one of the greatest ancient thinkers.
Let us be clear that as a leader of the BJP, and also as a student of Political Science, Modi has every right to name anyone he considers appropriate for such a list. But he is also the prime minister of India. His list now gets a lot of state support as well.
Which is why, the fact that this list excludes Ambedkar (and Nehru) becomes significant. There would not have been any objection if Modi were to project his party’s leaders as great thinkers in general terms.
But here he was talking about three greatest thinkers of the 20th century, and that is a problem. Because it has implications for higher educational institutions in future.
The UGC recognised the four epoch-making thinkers – Buddha, Gandhi, Ambedkar and Nehru – for the purpose of establishing research centres in their names in the universities and formulating common opinion about including them in the teaching courses.
None of these four, we should note, was included because of belonging to any political party. Leaving Buddha aside, whose thought needs no introduction, each one of the modern thinkers had written very influential books. Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj, Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste, Nehru’s Discovery of India are known as classics.
The expert team considered the books that they wrote (or in Buddha’s case, the collections of his thoughts), the discussion that their ideas generated and the broad influence of their thoughts on our national thinking. And that is how the UGC came to choose them as epoch-making thinkers of India.
What do we know Upadhyaya by? Four speeches delivered by him at Bombay were put into a book form Ekatm Manavatavad Darshan, broadly translated as “Integral Humanism”. It is hardly a text that could be treated as coherent philosophical writing. He borrows some ideas from MN Roy’s Radical Humanism and nets them into some kind of vague Hindu humanist ideology.
Any major socio-political thinker to be included in such a short list of three great thinkers of modern period must have formulated some concrete ideas of socio-economic change. Or, to use Modi’s own words, “influenced and shaped Indian political thought in the last century.”
Upadhyaya has no such ideas.
Modi praises Buddha and Gandhi as great thinkers and reformers of India on international platforms. On Dalit platforms, he praises Ambedkar to the sky. On the BJP platform, he releases a lists of three thinkers – Gandhi, Lohia and Upadhyaya – without any logic and reason.
As I said earlier, Modi’s exclusion of Nehru could be understood but why did he exclude Ambedkar?
That is a million dollar question, at this juncture of Dalit assertion.