Friday, Jul 01, 2022

The Outsider

To his detractors, he was the quintessential spoiler. The unscrupulous deal-maker. The expedient politician. But the man, who single-handedly pitch-forked Dalits to the centre-stage of political power-play, was nothing short of a messiah for his supp

While many people start political parties, not many can be credited with having built them almost single-handedly to the stature of a national party. Kanshi Ram, 74, was one such leader who did that with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).. His passing at 12.30 am at his official residence due to complications arising out of multiple ailments marks an end of a truly remarkable political career. Virtually bedridden for nearly two years following multiple complications—paralytic stroke, diabetes and hypertension—Kanshi Ram had become an object of battle between his family and his protégé, the current BSP chief Mayawati, whom he had appointed as his political heir.

Born on March 15, 1934 in a Scheduled Caste Sikh family of Khawaspur village in Ropar district in Punjab, Kanshi Ram did his B.Sc and got a reserved seat in the survey of India, and later joined the Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) in 1957 in Pune. In 1965, he got caught up in movement initiated by other Scheduled Caste employees to prevent the abolition of a holiday commemorating Dr Ambedkar's birthday. That is when he quit his job to take up the cause of Dalits.

Dalit politics would never be the same in the country. Kanshi Ram realised early that even if a large chunk of 85% of depressed classes in India were to be united as one massive vote-bank, it could easily trump any other political configuration. And thus came the concept of Bahujan Samaj (Majority Society).

In December, 1978 he formed the All India Backward (SC, ST and Other Backward Castes) and Minority Employees Federation and then as a step towards consolidation of Dalits in 1981 came 'DS4' —the Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti, a precursor to the Bahujan Samaj Party which was founded on Ambedkar's birthday, April 14, 1984. He was the first to demand money from his voters, instead of bribing them with cash. One rupee, one vote is what he would ask. And he got it from a whole lot of them. 

The beginning of course was not smooth, as the Rajiv Gandhi wave swept to power in the 1984 elections after Mrs Gandhi's death, but his political journey had truly begun. As the Congress fortunes declined, he rose to prominence in Uttar Pradesh. Or perhaps, more correctly, it was the other way around.  He was to fight  and come third in his first Lok Sabha contest that he fought when VP Singh resigned from Congress and thus the bye-elections were held from Allahabad — after VP Singh (Jan Morcha) and Sunil Shastri (Congress). 

The BSP made its formal entry into Uttar Pradesh's politics when Mayawati contested a by-poll for the Bijnor Lok Sabha seat. Mayawati lost but by 1989, the BSP had consolidated its base in UP. Kanshi Ram finally  made his entry into Lok Sabha in 1992 from Etawah (UP) and again in 1996 from Hoshiarpur (Punjab) but lost in 1998. He then entered the Rajya Sabha. 

His dream of 50 Lok Sabha seats may have remained unfulfilled till his death, but he did have the satisfaction of seeing Bahujan Samaj Party gain recognition as a national party within merely a decade of being formed. By the late 80s and early 90s, he had already come to be known as the messiah of the Dalits, particularly in north India, and had a profound influence on the community. Never had they had such a charismatic and prominent leader or enjoyed such a strong sense of identity since the passing of Babasaheb Ambedkar. Comparisons with Ambedkar are of course futile, for the two men were like chalk and cheese, but if Ambedkar gave the Dalits legal rights, Kanshi Ram ensured that they experienced political power as well.

Kanshi Ram can justifiably be described as the one man in independent India who was responsible for pitchforking Dalits to the centrestage of power politics in Uttar Pradesh—and thus the entire country.  A master strategist known for his blunt speech, who made no secret of "using" other political parties, he was one of the first to usher in the concept of using strategic alliances effectively, ruthlessly dumping and switching partners in his pursuit of political power in his quest.

Questions of consistency or principles did not bother him as he would blatantly state that he was willing to use any crutch to get representation for the depressed classes whose cause he claimed to champion, nor did he ever feign any ideological affinity with any of his alliance partners. He would openly describe the choice between Congress and the BJP as that between Naagnath and Saanpnaath (between the snake and the serpent) making it clear that his purpose was purely one of expediency. Power to the Dalits, he would proudly declare, was his sole goal and for that he would not mind aligning with anyone including "Manu-wadi" forces, his label for the upper castes, provided it gave his Bahujan Samaj the opportunity to control the levers of power.

He was a true maverick in the crowded Indian political-scape and one who changed the face of coalition politics in Uttar Pradesh, and thus the country, forever with his rise — and it is no surprise that he evoked extreme reactions:  adoration from his followers and hatred from his detractors and political opponents. An indication of his hold over his constituency can be gauged by the fact that he could always be relied upon to transfer the votes of his constituency to those he allied with. Unlike others, he would openly say that he preferred political instability in which he saw an opportunity for the growth of BSP.