The Congress' plans to reach out to the Dalits before the Bihar Assembly elections have left those who follow the party's activities, cold. The Congress held a rally at Bihar's Champaran on Saturday, dedicating it to the memory of Dr B.R. Ambedkar. The party will also hold year-long functions in his memory.
Manindra Nath Thakur, professor of political science in JNU, said that it has become imperative for any party to pander to Dalit voters these days, be it on the "left or right", as the Dalit vote has consolidated in recent times unlike the OBC vote, which has become fractured. "Look at the support Jitan Ram Manjhi got when he had to resign from the post of Bihar Chief Minister," he said.
Sanoj Kumar, a professor of history in Delhi Univeristy, said that it was mostly the dominant Dalit castes like Paswans and Jatavs who had benefited in Bihar and Utar Pradesh respectively. "The Congress, by playing the Ambedkar card in Bihar, is hoping to garner the votes of other Dalit castes who have not received a share in the spoils yet. It knows that only Ambedkar, even as a symbol, has the capacity to bring the Dalit castes together despite their differences," he said.
The Congress and Ambedkar never saw eye-to-eye. In fact, Ambedkar's acrimonious exchanges with Mahatma Gandhi are well recorded in history and continue to provide material for scholars to analyse. An introduction by celebrity author Arundhati Roy to a re-issue of Ambedkar's seminal text The Annihilation of Caste, continues to be debated on various platforms. Ambedkar disliked the Congress' emphasis on political issues when social issues like caste and untouchability were far from resolved.
"The Congress propped up Jagjivan Ram to counter Ambedkar," said Kumar. Although Ram was a successful politician, he was not seen as one of their own by the Dalits. "This was because he never tried to establish any independent means of politicking for the Dalits," said Thakur, adding it was a "patron-client" relationship, which did not exist anymore. Kumar added that "Ram practised the politics of compromise", which further alienated him from the Dalits. Both said that projecting Meira Kumar, his daughter, as the Dalit face by making her attend Saturday's rally was redundant. "They do not identify with her and see her as part of the elite. This has no meaning," said Thakur.
According to Shahid Parvez, a Delhi-based senior journalist covering Congress, the party is playing the Ambedkar card aggressively. "They are trying to give an impression that Ambedkar was always one of their own and they want to reclaim him. But no matter how much they follow this strategy, it will be limited to creating talking points. They need to champion their causes and establish connection with them on the ground. Otherwise, I don't see much gain for them," he said.