BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi or Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa paying homage to BR Ambedkar on his 123rd birth anniversary indeed smacks of political opportunism of the crass kind, especially during election time. There is, of course, the irony and ambiguity that Ambedkar represented passionately and with extraordinary intellectual fervour the cause of the Dalits, the most shamefully oppressed section of traditional Hindu society. But he was also a towering modern leader with passion for democratic institutions and constitutional procedures. He hated hero worship and believed in the majesty of the rule of law. The Ambedkar that Congress, BJP, Bahujan Samaj Party (BJP) and all others reach out to is the Dalit icon. Ambedkar never shied away from being the Dalit icon himself. He understood the political compulsion.
The complexity of the Ambedkar phenomenon should not be seen as a contradiction which should be resolved as quickly as possible in favour of Ambedkar the intellectual hero as against Ambedkar the Dalit hero. Ambedkar pleaded the Dalit cause as special interest, to use American political parlance. There should be nothing shameful or objectionable in special interest groups. In a diverse polity, it is inevitable that there should be different groups, each standing up for its legitimate special interest, and using the democratic process to further their cause.
Of course, the assumption is that there is not one special interest group or a few special interest groups but there are many and each competes with the other in a transparent manner. This has been the fact of Indian democracy before and after Independence. Many modernists had been worried that in the Indian case, the caste, religious, regional and linguistic groups pose a threat to modernity and national unity and the sooner they wither away the better it is for the country. And many of the political scientists are apologetic about the persistence of caste, religious and other parochial identities in Indian politics.
If these groupings are seen as special interest groups with legitimate and specific demands, then the rationale of the debate will alter radically and what has been seen as hangover from an embarrassing past will be seen as a natural expression of a diverse society. In the American context, the Blacks, the Hispanics, Asian groups like the Indians, Chinese and Koreans and Vietnamese, the Jews and the Arabs, are all merrily jostling for influence in the crowded American politics and it has in no way undermined American unity and power. And in the American context, it is also the case that members of these groups also speak the pan-American language of American interests, power and glory.
In a similar way, representatives of Dalits, Other Backward Classes (OBCs), Muslims, the Dravidian and other regional parties speak the language of national interest and pride when they deal with pan-Indian questions in Parliament and elsewhere. When they speak on national issues they do not cease to be representatives of their special interest grouping, nor do they cease to be nationalists when they argue for the specific interests of their group.
So, instead of asking people to forget their identity roots, identities should be seen in the positive light of diversity, where there is competition but no discrimination. The Dalit, the OBC, the Muslim, Mizo and the Naga should be able to acknowledge each other in the political, and not just in the private, sphere. This would be the celebration of democratic diversity in its true spirit.