December 6, 2010

Why the Right must embrace Ambedkar

Ramachandra Guha recently labelled Arundhati Roy the Arun Shourie of the Right. On the face of it the comparison appears far fetched. Ms Roy, known primarily for her obstructionist activism and loud commentary, can at best be described as an intellectual anarchist having never held any position of responsibility. Mr Shourie, on the other hand, is not only known for his stewardship of a leading newspaper but was widely praised for his foresight, acumen and probity in managing the Vajpayee government’s privatisation programme.

Nevertheless, in at least one aspect, Ms Roy and Mr Shourie do appear to share some commonality. Through their rather opportunistic interpretation of Ambedkar, they have both, unfortunately, attempted to provide intellectual cover to acts of constitutional immorality committed by both the political Left and the political Right.

In her endorsement of Bhimayana – Experiences of Untouchability, a new book on Ambedkar, Ms Roy has described him as India’s most important thinker and has argued that his influence on India’s polity has been deliberately downplayed. On similar lines, she had also invoked Ambedkar’s vision in a recent essay offering a rather blatant defence of Maoist terrorism.

Despite her constant celebration of Ambedkar, Ms Roy has shown little faith in his constitutionalism. Ms Roy’s obstructionist activism is a constant reminder of what Ambedkar had condemned as the “Grammar of Anarchy” in his closing speech to the Constituent Assembly. If democracy is to be maintained in form as well as spirit, he had argued, then all unconstitutional means must be abandoned once the Constitution came into force. It is ironic that Ms Roy cites Ambedkar to defend those who not only show scant regard for constitutional morality but seek to overthrow the republic that is built on that Constitution.

Radicals like Arundhati Roy are not the only ones who stand out for showing little faith in Constitutional institutions. The edifice of Nehruvian socialism and much of the Congress party’s dynastic politics rests on a similar lack of conviction. The Congress and its leadership bear the ignominy of having scripted some of the most worst acts of constitutional immorality.

If the deliberate obfuscation of constitutional morality has given the extreme Left intellectual cover, it also strengthened the dynastic centre-left’s vice-like grip on levers of power. Unfortunately, the BJP also embraced this culture of constitutional permissiveness, reaching its nadir in the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. In fact, the Indian Right has been timid and unimaginative in its embrace of Ambedkar. It may pay lip service to him as an icon but has offered little respect to his constitutionalism and unshakeable faith in due process and rule of law. There is much in Ambedkar’s constitutionalism to support a coherent centre-right agenda, if close attention is paid to his interventions in the Constituent Assembly debates and to his writings.

First, his strong defence of the republic in the Constituent Assembly that is reminiscent of Kautilya. Ambedkar was a student of Kautilya’s Arthashastra , to which he refers to in his book Who were the Shudras? Second, he strongly repudiated arguments that insisted that the Constitution explicitly declare India a socialist state. Third, Ambedkar’s remarks cautioning against the mindset of victimhood perpetuating itself within the religious minorities are a strong rejection of present day vote bank politics. Finally, his vision of an India where

“the Majority ceases to discriminate against the Minority thus giving no ground for the Minority mindset to exist”

puts him firmly on the side of political Right in India.

Unfortunately, the Indian Right and its leading intellectual figures, in particular Mr Shourie, have focused on the more controversial aspects of Ambedkar’s discourse. Mr Shourie’s criticism of Ambedkar stems largely from his remarks made by him in the parliament as the Law Minister in Nehru’s cabinet, on the unsuitability of the Constitution for India. Mr Shourie then goes on to construct a narrative of Ambedkar focused almost exclusively on the frustration in the latter’s twilight years, framing him as a British acolyte with questionable contribution to the Constitution. Some of Ambedkar’s writing from the pre-independence era with support for two-nation theory lends credence to Mr Shourie’s case.

While deification of any political leader is ultimately counterproductive, focusing exclusively on negative aspects of a complex political personality is also misleading. Mr Shourie’s deconstruction of Ambedkar merely reinforced negative stereotypes of the Indian Right while doing little to further the intellectual discourse beyond Hindutva. In an effort to demolish Ambedkar, Mr Shourie has tended to ignore the fundamentally more complex thought process underlying some of Ambedkar’s views. For instance, even his purported support of Pakistan was based on his scathing criticism of literal interpretations of Islamist doctrine and remains relevant to this day.

A reappraisal of Ambedkar’s constitutionalism can help fill the ideological vacuum in the broad space on the right of centre. As L K Advani himself recognised during years the BJP was in power in New Delhi, Hindutva had nothing to do with most areas of governance. The lip service to Integral Humanism notwithstanding, it is abundantly clear the Indian Right today is a political movement bereft of a sound ideology—rather, it has lurched from one crisis to another while offering a smorgasbord of ideas from Gandhian socialism to a quasi-religious agenda. It is here that Ambedkar’s staunch constitutionalism, his rejection of politics of victimhood and grievances, and his views of economic freedom become particularly relevant to the Indian Right.

The Indian Right must look beyond a tainted political Hindutva of the 1990s. Ambedkarite constitutionalism can be an effective antidote to the statist policies of the Leftist ideologues and to the dynastic politics of the Left-leaning Congress. The Indian Right must recognise Ambedkar as the symbol of modern day dharma and embrace constitutionalism as its moral and ideological compass.

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