Meira Kumar vs Ram Nath Kovind: India’s Presidential Election Marks A Departure From Ambedkarite Dalit Politics

Posted by PEOPLES PULSE in Politics, Staff Picks
June 24, 2017

By Sajjan Kumar:

Such is the preponderance of identity politics that even the election of next President of India has been subsumed under the acrimonious debate on ‘authentic vs. spurious’ representatives of Dalits. The political shift within Hindutva discourse seeing Ambedkar from being a ‘false god’ to ‘subaltern-god’, coupled with their positive interface with both Dalit elites as well as Dalit masses in Hindi heartland, has unsettled the overarching consensus as to who could be claimed as being the authentic representative of Dalits.

In this backdrop, the emergence of the ongoing debate regarding contesting claims upon ‘Dalit-self’, proclaiming some as mere ‘stooges’ and others as ‘real’ indicates the notion of an abstract Dalit assessed upon normative hierarchization that a Dalit needs to acquire the consciousness of ‘stigma’, ‘marginality’, ‘self-respect’, and a sense of autonomy from the Brahmanical societal structure to be considered as the ‘authentic Dalit’. Mere birth in a Dalit caste, it’s claimed, would not be adequate to qualify one as being an authentic claimant of the category. This means, one is not born as a Dalit but rather acquires the self by actively internalizing the desired attributes by undergoing a process of specific political socialization.

Here, the selection of Meira Kumar, the daughter of towering Dalit leader Jagjivan Ram, who remained the hegemonic Dalit icon in Hindi heartland from 1950s to mid-1980, as the consensus candidate of anti-BJP opposition parties to counter BJP’s Dalit candidate Ram Nath Kovind, signifies and complicates the popularly perceived hierarchy within the Dalit discourse.

The current shift within the internal hierarchization of Dalit discourse needs to be seen in the context of 1980s when the discourse of Ambedkarite politics emerged in Hindi heartland under the leadership of Kanshiram, stigmatizing Jagjivan Ram not only as being anti-Ambedkar but rather as a ‘Chamcha-Dalit’. The political model of Kanshi Ram was heavily borrowed from that of Maharashtrian Mahar-centric Dalit politics. Having failed in replicating the model in his native state Punjab that accounts for highest percentage population of Dalits, he moved to Uttar Pradesh, given its sizeable chunk of the Dalit population under the semi-feudal structure.

It needs to be mentioned that despite making a claim of new Ambedkarite Dalit-self, Kanshi Ram also ensured that the movement and party (BSP) must be under the hegemonic control of Jatav-Chamar leadership, a fact still reflected in the organizational profile of BSP. This leads to the inference that even the Ambedkarite Dalit politics, that claimed and acquired a normative Archimedean point to label alternative model of Dalit politics as illegitimate, opportunistic and compromised, was itself caste centric.

Secondly, the selection of Meira Kumar as the consensus opposition candidate also needs to be contextualized in the backdrop of a series of Dalit protests under claimed Ambedkarite outfits and leaders in various parts of the country, more recently at Saharanpur by the Bhim-Sena. At a time when it seemed that anti-BJP Dalit discourse is acquiring an autonomy under the nascent young leaderships of Jignesh Mevani and Chandrashekhar, a shift opposition parties may capitalize upon, the selection of Meira Kumar acquires profound significance. She was selected by 17 opposition parties including Left parties and BSP for being a Dalit, a woman, an ex-diplomat, an ex-Lok Sabha speaker, but most importantly for being the cultural and political inheritor of her father Jagjivan Ram. The fact that Mayavati publicly welcomed her candidature and thanked anti-BJP opposition parties has its symbolic relevance, given the same leader along with Kanshiram left no stone unturned to vilify and stigmatize Jagjivan Ram in the 1980s and 1990s.

Thirdly, the choice of Meira Kumar as opposition candidate also signifies less about the reemergence of Gandhian-framework of Dalit discourse and more about the existential crisis that Ambedkarite-Dalit politics is going through. The latter seems like an anchorless ship oscillating from one ideological stream to the other. While one set of erstwhile Ambedkarite leaders like Ramdas Athavale and Udit Raj, the claimant of the ‘authentic Dalit self’, have joined the bandwagon of Hindutva discourse, the episodic and event-specific emergence of new Ambedkarite leaderships like Jignesh Mevani and Chandrashekhar are an ‘agency in flux’ who disappear from the centre stage once the specific incidents causing their emergence are overwhelmed by other events.

This oscillating trajectory informing the Ambedkarite politics, in particular, a state of anchorlessness among the anti-BJP sub-stream, suddenly seems to provide a respectability to the Gandhian framework of Dalit-discourse where empowerment is sought in an assimilative and inclusive paradigm rather than a framework essentializing entire centrist-political discourse as brahmanical.

The dominant narrative emerging from the selection of Meira Kumar as consensus candidate preferring her over the likes of Prakash Ambedkar and others indicate that the battle against the rightward shift of Dalit elites and Dalit masses is going to be fought under the Gandhian Dalit discourse that Jagjivan Ram symbolized. Ironically, the stature and model of the Jagjivan Ram model of Dalit politics died two deaths, one by the Congress in the early 1980s when he was made insignificant and invisible by the post-emergency Congress leadership and second by his fellow Dalit politician, Kanshi Ram. In fact, by the time Kanshi Ram started vilifying him to create his own Dalit constituency, Jagjivan Ram’s political model was already dead. What Kanshiram succeeding in killing was the remnant and shadow of the Jagjivan Ram model of Dalit politics.

A symbolic reading of the selection of Meira Kumar as opposition candidate, her fetching support from the Left to Mayavati, points towards the emergence of two fluid but dominant model of Dalit discourse, namely, Hindutva and Gandhian, with the remnants of the Ambedkarite Dalit politics of the mid-1980s getting subsumed under one or the other. In response to the emergence of subaltern Hindutva, the opposition parties are forced to come under the rubric of centrism that Gandhian discourse signified. Meira Kumar’s candidature, even in her highly likely defeat, signifies a comeback of the Gandhian discourse on the Dalit question. In future, the terms, ‘Dalit and Harijan’ may not be placed as antagonistic to each other, and there is a possibility that the self-referential terms may acquire a normative equivalence—already a sociological fact—in popular as well as analytical usages.