Book Review | Kanshiram: Leader Of The Dalits
Kanshiram: Leader Of The Dalits | Badri Narayan
A man of the people
Badri Narayan’s biography of Kanshiram, Dalit “prophet” and founder of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), could not have come at a better time. Three decades after it was formed, the party finds itself in its deepest crisis yet.
Indeed, this is the first time that the BSP has drawn a blank in a Lok Sabha poll. This crushing humiliation of the party and its leader Mayawati, coming as it does after a series of setbacks in assembly polls across north India ever since the BSP lost power in Uttar Pradesh two years ago, does raise serious questions about the future of this amazing political project launched by Kanshiram.
As Mayawati goes back to the drawing board to find a strategy to resurrect the flagging fortunes of her party, she would do well to remember her early days of tutelage at the feet of Kanshiram. In Kanshiram: Leader Of The Dalits, Narayan recounts the indefatigable perambulations of the Dalit leader across north and central India to assemble the BSP despite a crippling lack of resources. Mayawati, who was an integral part of this brick-by-brick building exercise, has come a long way since then. Today she spends most of her time ensconced within the walls of her luxurious mansions and, on the few occasions that she chooses to interact with her constituency, she flies in a helicopter to address them at mega-rallies.
Narayan, who first caught attention with his excellent book Women Heroes And Dalit Assertion In North India : Culture, Identity And Politics, which provides fascinating insights into the cultural iconography used by the BSP for political mobilization, has written a long-overdue biography of Kanshiram. It is strange that it has taken so long for a detailed appraisal of a remarkable figure who initiated tectonic shifts in the political landscape.
Yet the book is more than competent in etching Kanshiram as a unique organizer and ideologue of a community that may well be the most oppressed in the history of mankind. Of particular interest is the distinction the author draws between B.R. Ambedkar’s attitude to the caste system and that of Kanshiram. Narayan reiterates what he has been asserting over the past few years in articles and essays: that while Ambedkar wanted the annihilation of caste—the title of his famous treatise—Kanshiram seized upon caste as a navigational tool to sail the political seas, expertly leveraging it to acquire power.
The author, who otherwise is clearly sympathetic to Kanshiram, is frank about his amoral opportunism, which was in contrast to Ambedkar’s ethical approach to politics. This often led the Dalit leader to be criticized as a ruthless cynic, exemplified by his deal-making with the Bharatiya Janata Party to get Mayawati and the BSP into power in Uttar Pradesh, even turning a blind eye to the horrific communal riots in 2002 in Gujarat under Narendra Modi’s administration.
However, Narayan is convinced that whatever Kanshiram did was to promote the political agenda of his people in the belief that the end justified the means. He also points out that Ambedkar and Kanshiram were fundamentally different leaders operating in different eras. One was an intellectual giant who set a broad agenda of emancipation for Dalits as India achieved independence. The other was a homespun, self-taught leader operating in the rough and tumble of multi-party Indian politics who not only had to mobilize his community but twist and turn at every step to help it ascend the power ladder. Kanshiram himself described this difference with Ambedkar when he said, “He used to gather books; I tried to collect people.”
At a time when the Modi sweep threatens the very existence of the BSP, a return to the very basics of Kanshiram’s political quest has become essential if the party is to survive. A beleaguered Mayawati needs to recreate both the physical energy of her mentor’s outreach programme across civil society as well as his innovationwhile negotiating mainstream politics. She could start by reading Narayan’s book to jog her memory.
Ajoy Bose is a political commentator and author of Behenji: A Political Biography Of Mayawati.