Rahul Gandhi’s speech on the occasion of the release of book ‘Dalit Truth’ edited by Dr K.Raju, and published by Penguin India, has gone viral as Darbari media has again launched offensive against him while the BJP trolls have started picking up hole in it. Jawahar Bhavan conference hall, where the Book was launched was completely packed. The invite that had come from the Congress party was that the book launch would be preceded by a panel discussion. I decided to go as I felt it was an opportunity to understand what Congress think about Dr Ambedkar and what is its future planning related to the Dalits. Frankly speaking, I came disappointed despite the fact that an attempt was made by the Congress party yet it looked half hearted and more symbolic than a real effort to reach the Dalits.
The audience inside the auditorium had a majority of Congress workers from different states but predominantly Delhi and bordering areas of Haryana and Rajasthan. There was lot of commotion as a number of Congress leaders were present there particularly from the scheduled caste community. Then there were some board members of Samruddha Bharat Foundation who were sitting on the front row. Seva Dal karyakartas were also visible managing the crowd.
The topic ‘Forging a New Dalit Politics to Counter Hindutva’ was important but the moderator converted it into an issue of how Dalits can be brought back to Congress despite the Congress has ‘done’ ‘so much’ for them. It was being moderated by Congress leader Rajesh Lilothia and included Bhanwar Meghwanshi, Anurag Bhaskar, Jignesh Mewani, Poonam Paswan, Praniti Shinde. But once the programme started it became clear that it was not attempted to make an outreach to Ambedkarite activist but more an event management.
I felt that the Congress lost a great opportunity to bring Ambedkarite intellectuals into its forefront. The attempt was to provide space to ‘Dalits’ but continue to convert the debate into BJP verses Congress as if there has been no other space for them. The questions posed by moderator was “Why Dalits drifted away from the Congress’? The response by a woman panellist was that ‘we do not ‘market’ our work and need to do it more aggressively’. Another worthy says that there are so many communities among Dalits and we must not focus on one or two communities but go to others. There was also talk of growing aspiration of Dalit middle classes which need representation as well as land reforms in the villages. The problem was that the moderator’s attempt was to convert the entire issue as why Dalits are not fighting against ‘Hindutva’ and what should be done to bring them to Congress. In the entire debate, the least referred person was Dr Ambedkar. In any event anywhere in the world, related to Dalits, Dr Ambedkar remain the most talked about person. Todays Dalit identity can not be discussed without understanding Ambedkar as both can not be separated. Even when a Congress leader suggested to speak about sub castes, they forgot that Baba Saheb Ambedkar remain the link for all communities. Attempt were made to portray Dr Ambedkar a political leader of particular castes but that has failed. Dalits as well as OBCs have now realised the powerful and phenomenal contribution of Dr Ambedkar in their lives and hence no constructive discussion is possible about Dalit-OBC-Adivasi issues without understanding Ambedkar-Phule-Periyar-Birsa.
Rahul Gandhi arrived at the venue when the panel discussion was at the last phase. When, he came to the stage, the panellists were asked to go back while ‘new’ people particularly the board member of the Samridh Bharat Foundation were brought on the front row. Mr K Raju, the Editor of the Dalit Truth spoke for about five minutes gave details about the book. Rahul Gandhi rose to speak after that. It was rather unfortunate that Rahul Gandhi’s speech which has gone viral had a disconnect. Hid did not utter a word about the book. Neither he found it important to congratulate the editor and authors. His intentions may be good and he is definitely a well-behaved person yet the statements that he made yesterday was not the sign of a matured leader but more of a person who want to ‘prove’ how much he ‘care’ for the people but without understanding the vast Dalit Bahujan movements. He narrated the incident of Una and how he went there but the narrative about Una remained incomplete. Any one who heard that would vouch that his message got lost in his attempt to create a story. It look that like Narendra Modi, he is trying to ‘connect’ with people and create an story for that. Narendra Modi has done that successfully at many places but now people have realise and those things will not work all the time. Problem with Rahul Gandhi is his inability to communicate with the Hindi speaking masses. He is perfectly well with English speaking people and his communication is far superior and well-articulated but in the Hindi Heartland he communication need to come out of these long ‘pauses’ like Atal Bihari Vajpayee. In the television age, you need to put your message straight and try to develop a connect with the people. He says that when he went to see the family of the Una victim, he found that a number of youngsters had attempted to commit suicide and then he went to meet them in the hospital. He tried to speak some of them. He wanted to ask them as why they attempted suicide. According to Rahul if any person is attempting to suicide after watching his sisters or family being traumatised then he must revolt and respond in the same language to the oppressor but when he said to one as why did you commit suicide, why didn’t you kill the perpetrator, then a boy told him that he was afraid that if he killed him, he would be born as a Dalit. Now, Rahul Gandhi meant to say that Dalits cant get angry with the upper castes because they are too religious or believe in karma theory. One may agree that the karma theory has hurt the marginalised the most but he must not forget that Dalits have responded democratically and culturally. The whole movement of Baba Saheb was not on playing on the pitch of Brahmanism but create your own way of life. Navayana was the way forward. Those followed Buddhism have shown the way. It is an example and people can make research studies on the rise of the Buddhists in India. Rahul Gandhi condemned untouchability and rightly said that India is the only country where this problem exists and that it is a disease but he failed to identify the cause.
Rahul Gandhi also spoke about another thing that he met a member of Parliament and asked him if he believed in Punarjanma. The MP of the BJP told him that he does not. Rahul then asked him if he does not believe in Punarjanma then how come he believe in Lord Rama. He says that the MP asked him not to speak about this in public. One does not know what Rahul Gandhi wanted to communicate with this. The fact is the Sangh parivar trolls have found lots of ammunition against him and his communication. What is the relationship between Punarjanma (rebirth) and faith in Lord Rama? And even if there may be some relation, then how is it connected to the issues of Dalits? And most importantly, how is it going to benefit the Congress Party?
Is it a communication problem or burden of history?
Rahul Gandhi gave a lengthy speech on the ‘Dalit Truth’ but lacked substance. His two stories provide no answers and rather reflect confusion and ambiguity. The Una narrative actually meant nothing. He spoke from the heart and there is no doubt that he is well intentioned but the issue of Dalits is not merely being their ‘patron’ but allow them having their own agency. Frankly speaking, it was not Rahul Gandhi alone but Congress Party showed a very patronising approach in handling the issue. He could have asked Jignesh Mewani as how many times the Congress workers have visited Una. The Dalits in Una protested and it was big protest. They left their ‘traditional’ occupation and opted for new work. In May 2018 many embraced Buddhism as a mark of protest including those seven and their families who were flogged by the Darbar community goons in Una.
Dalits may not be very powerful in Gujarat as they constitute merely 7% of the state population and hence a violence against them never became a political issue in the state despite the fact that the issue became a big international news but politically not much useful to snatch power.
Yes, Dalits faced tremendous mental agony in Gujarat because their numerical strength is low and they do not get any support. The Hindutva model is making them economically depended and therefore resistance become difficult. Economic boycott has been a powerful tool for the caste Hindus against Dalits as well as Adivasis. The mainstream social narrative in Gujarat never allowed Ambedkarism to reach the villages. Political parties rarely raised their issues but Una incident compelled the Dalits to understand Ambedkar and Buddhism. They also saw many of those who became ‘national’ and ‘international’ through Una but never bothered to visit them again. Such betrayal makes the Dalit despondent and they question.
I am not sure whether Rahul Gandhi and Congress Party understand that Dalits issue is not merely showing anger to Brahmanism but also participation in power. It is also about Ambedkarism and realising the fact the issues of India can not be resolved by ignoring Ambedkarite thoughts.
Given the nature of the entire programme and its framework, it is clearly visible that Congress Party as a whole has not been able to embrace Ambedkarism or Ambedkarite ideology. There was ‘resistance’ on part of the two women panellists who seems to be from Congress party even when one of the panellists categorically spoke about putting Dr Ambedkar’s photographs at Congress Headquarter as well as respecting his contribution.
Jignesh Mewani spoke about middle class Dalits aspirations need to be respected but most of the Congress leaders feel that it needs to ‘fight for Dalits’ and show them how much it has ‘cared’ for them. Well, one need not to ignore the fact that two UPA governments not only attacked on reservation but promoted rabid privatisation process. Narendra Modi is just taking the issues much further which were left by the UPA-II as far as privatisation is concern.
The way Congress leaders spoke about Dalit issues and their representation show lack of understanding or refusal to under the ground reality. The first thing, if the Congress or Rahul Gandhi can learn a bit about understanding the Dalit and its heritage issue is to respect the issues of representation and share in power structure. Today, all of them are seeking this representation including OBCs, Adivasis and minorities. Congress had number of leaders from these communities once upon a time but Congress must not underestimate the fact that post Mandal India is different. Now, issue of Dalits in India can not be dealt without understanding its relationship with Dr Baba Saheb Ambedkar. Gone are the days when Congress could get votes in the name of Babu Jagjivan Ram. Today, there are not many takers of that idea. While Narendra Modi has used every opportunity to portray how much he ‘respect’ Baba Saheb Ambedkar, Congress Party lacks that sophistry. Even today during the Book launch ceremony, Dr Ambedkar’s photograph was kept by the side of the stage and the tribute by Rahul Gandhi was merely a formality.
A lost opportunity of Congress’s approach to understand Dr Ambedkar
In his entire speech, Rahul Gandhi could not quote Ambedkar to reflect the crisis of the Varna Society. His attempt to tell the Dalits to do a ‘tit for tat’ was a bit whimsical which Dr Baba Saheb Ambedkar never asked any one of his followers. Ambedkarism is not merely a philosophy of responding to Brahmanical ‘exploitation’ or oppression but much bigger than that. The idea of Prabuddha Bharat is an inclusive philosophy that can take India further away from the fragmentation caused by the Varna system. If Rahul Gandhi and Congress Party really want to speak about Dalits and their issues then important for Congress party to get away from the patronising approach and understand this categorically that without Ambedkar and his ideas, you cant reach the Dalits.
Rahul Gandhi could have used this opportunity to bring ideas of Ambedkarism which will make India a modern nation as Nehru too wanted. Both Ambedkar and Nehru remain giants and icons of modern India. They have more commonalities and though the differences are there but definitely their point of commonalities were more. Unfortunately, Rahul Gandhi and Congress party have done little in this regard and it look Congress has not yet been able to embrace Baba Saheb Ambedkar naturally.
There is no doubt that Congress need to survive. It can become the voice of all the marginalised where they have not got the opportunity. Congress must remember that Dalits have their own parties in many places and there is nothing wrong when autonomous leadership emerge from these sections. Unless Congress allows its platforms to create independent leaders inside its own forums it will have problem. I had suggested long that Congress need to open channel with BSP and allow it to have the bigger share in Uttar Pradesh. A coming together of Congress and BSP would have helped the party in other parts where BSP does not have the presence but Ambedkarism exists and that good will would have congress lots of space in other states. Unfortunately, Congress’s Dalit outreach looks Brahmanical in nature and in places like Telangana, BSP’s Dr R K Praveen Kumar is working extremely hard to bring Dalits to BSP. Outside Uttar Pradesh, Telangana is the state where BSP is definitely showing sign of recovery as Dr Praveen Kumar has recently launched mass campaign and travelling nooks and corners of the state.
Statement on BSP and Ms Mayawati in poor taste
Rahul Gandhi’s statement on BSP Chief Ms Mayawati reflect poor understanding of the situation. I have mentioned it many time, like I wish Congress to strengthen, I want BSP also grow as it is important for the health of our democracy. To claim that Ms Mayawati did not fight election because of the fear of ED and CBI is extremely poor judgement. There is no doubt that BSP lost its battle in Uttar Pradesh much ahead as in the perception battle even among the Dalits it was not fighting the election. We don’t know why but his perception was dangerous and it ultimately cost the party heavily. But it is not good for Rahul Gandhi to make such remarks as BSP technically still performed much better than the Congress party and has nearly 12.5% vote share against Congress pitiable 2.3%. To suggest that you would make Mayawati as ‘chief minister’ is too patronising. If Akhilesh Yadav had made such kind of statement, one would trust but how can Congress which have still not gone away from its love for the Brahmanical elite and which itself projected everything to look Brahmin friendly is seeking answer from the Dalits. It is shocking that nobody is asking why the Savarnas, the brahmins, Thakurs, Kayasthas, Banias are voting to BJP ? Why Congress has not been able to understand that Brahmins and Savarnas are not going to come back to its fold and unless it goes to Dalits with its heart open, its understanding of Ambedkarism, it won’t move ahead. When I am suggesting Ambedkarism, I am only suggesting that without understanding the Ambedkar’s world view, Congress can not really claim Dalit votes at all. It might get here and there but to become party of the marginalised Congress need to embrace not only Mandal philosophy but that of Dr Ambedkar’s modern ideals too.
Congress need serious introspection about its dwindling vote banks. To be fair to Rahul Gandhi, he must be complimented for bringing ideological issues to Congress party but it still needs many more things. Congress downfall started since 1980 when Indira Gandhi returned to power after Janata experiment failed. The flirting with Hindutva started since then. Most of the Congress leaders lacked political ideology and party suffered. The assault on Golden Temple in 1984 and then the aftermath of the assassination of Mrs Indira Gandhi gave Rajiv Gandhi huge mandate but defeated India. The Congress’s experiment of making the minorities villain was used by BJP in the Gujarat in the year 2002. The party was more focussed on getting to govern and less on the party’s cadre building. Rahul Gandhi would do well to investigate on the performance of UPA-II particularly P Chidambaram, Pranab Mukherjee, Manish Tiwari, Kapil Sibal, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Anand Sharma and look at their performances. Congress created a monster in 1980s in the form of Bhindarwale and in the year 2012 as it magnified Anna because it felt that encouraging Kejriwal and Anna would cut BJP’s vote but it was ‘too clever by half’ and the party lost everything in the battle of perceptions and subsequently losing elections after elections.
In 1989 when VP Singh implemented Mandal Commission report, Rajiv Gandhi actually opposed that in Parliament. Rahul Gandhi must not forget that the temple of the Ram Janm Bhumi got opened by Arun Nehru in 1985. Today, Congress need to really introspect when Rahul Gandhi and the party are asking as why ‘Dalits’ have gone away from the Congress. The party too was making all its bid to woo the Dalits but failed and the reason for this is pretty simple. As the things in the political map of India have changed after 1989. Whether Congress like it or not the marginalised are seeking a share in power structure and they don’t want to be merely speaking the issue of marginalised or making them ‘chair’ of SC-ST-OBC cells but should be given importance in handling other national issues. BJP understood that caste dynamics much better than Congress and brought all the sections of society in it. Congress unfortunately was ambiguous and suffered from ideological crisis as most of the post 1980s, it is the ‘chamchas’ who got preference in the party structure. There is a difference between a ‘chamcha’ and a person dedicated to the ideology of the Party. Connection matters and it resulted in party being over looked by those who became part of the government.
My point is that Rahul Gandhi has right intent. I still feel Congress is the only national alternative but at the same point of time, I will always support parties like BSP at least in states like Uttar Pradesh where they still have a fair chance of returning to power if work well. Important for Rahul Gandhi to promote leaders from diverse sections who can raise people’s issues. Rahul Gandhi should realise that it is not his fault but while his family legacy of great value right from Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, it is important for him to understand that some of the mistakes made by Indira ji as well as Rajiv Gandhi have hurt so much. When you take their powerful legacy, you need to discard their faults whether emergency, Shahbano case, or opposing Mandal Commission Report, the Delhi riots, rabid privatisation during UPA period, lack of decision making and so on. Rahul Gandhi must not ignore the fact that BSP supported Congress party to form governments in Uttarakhand, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh but what did the Congress do BSP? It actually allured those MLAs from their parental party. How does Congress maintain the good will when your party leaders break the party supporting you. Rahul Gandhi is clearly facing the tough challenge because of the burden of the heritage since 1980 as the party became more corrupt and sycophants got more space than those who were mass leaders. As he shows achievement of UPA era or his father’s time, it is also time to reject those things which were anti people in your own period particularly during the tumultuous period of 1980s.
One can understand that it is tough for the Congress party to walk the path by bringing all together but it is a fact that Congress need to invoke the legacy of Freedom movement and the first government of post independent India under Jawahar Lal Nehru which had people from all parties including the Jan Sangh as well as Dr Baba Saheb Ambedkar. Congress can bring the commonalities of ideological perceptions of Jawahar Lal Nehru and Dr Ambedkar. He need to embrace Indira ji of 1971 and Nehru’s model of development bringing diverse groups together and Dr Ambedkar’s idea of Prabuddha Bharat. It will be important but for that Rahul Gandhi need advisers who can do this complimentary work and not those who have a dislike for Dr Ambedkar. An opportunity like the ‘Book Release’ function could have been used to bring Dr Ambedkar’s thoughts to Congress party and not to raise unwanted controversies which will neither help Rahul Gandhi nor the Congress Party. If Rahul Gandhi feel that power is poison then he must start a cultural revolution India but that is not possible without an understanding of Buddha, Ambedkar, Phule, Periyar, Kabir, Raidas and critiquing the varnashram dharma. Is Rahul ready to work on the cultural front and if yes then he will be doing India a great favour as he has the legacy and if he start working on the alternative culture where democracy, equality flourish without accusing and abusing any one, then he will always be remembered as a revolutionary who brought hopes in the lives of people during these depressive times. As a politician he will have to compromise and adjust but if he does not have that feeling as he has mentioned many times then he can follow the path of Buddha by relinquishing his privileges and introspecting about the pros and cons of his ancestors too. India’s crisis emerges from Brahmanism and political system only strengthen it. Is he ready to leave his privileges and tread the rough and tough path of social life so that India became Prabuddha Bharat, as Baba Saheb had envisaged? Rahul Gandhi can also learn a lot from Gandhi as well as Periyar who never became part of power yet influenced the polity and remain relevant. Rahul can also learn a lot from the life of Dr Baba Saheb Ambedkar who is more relevant today not because he was a Minister in Union cabinet of Nehru but an intellectual, a philosopher who not merely critiqued Brahmanism but also provided us cultural alternative in the form of Buddhism. The fight to protect idea of India is not merely political but socio-cultural too. As a party Congress need to re-establish it as a party that provide platform to all the sections of society, give them space in the decision-making bodies and change the narrative.
Vidya Bhushan Rawat is a social activist. Twitter @freetohumanity