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The will of a disruptor

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay 

Badri Narayan
Penguin; Rs 499

In early 1990, when Indian political reporting was widening its base from limited and structured coverage of government and Opposition politics, this writer was told by a newspaper's political bureau chief of that time to go and spend some time with Kanshiram. Parliamentary polls were held a few months before that and Rajiv Gandhi had been unseated. Assembly elections were being held in several states and, though the paper for which I was working was still at the "dummy stage", it appeared to be a good idea to spend time with the leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which performed creditably without winning any seats.

Caste was one issue that was yet be embedded in journalistic discourse. The only time that one heard - or wrote - about caste combinations was when it came to talking about Ahir-Jat-Gujjar-Rajput or Muslim-Ahir-Jat-Gujjar-Rajput combinations that were forged from the time Charan Singh experimented with alternative vote banks to replace the Congress combination of Brahmin-Harijan-Muslim. Strangely, until then, Harijans - which is how they were referred to at that time - were seen as a mere add-on and were not perceived as a community capable of articulating its voice independently. In such a scenario, Kanshiram was an oddity; his arguments appeared to be those of a disruptionist leader.

Badri Narayan traces the evolution of this odd political leader, who kept chipping away at the block of old political ethos and values. The book underscores the reasons Kanshiram developed the ability to charm potential supporters and disarm critics. The book also enables readers to grasp Kanshiram's no-holds-barred style and what led him to be unabashed about the manner in which he went about making upper-caste journalists acutely conscious of their caste identity, though many of them did not profess belief in varna vyawastha. "You have to undergo the feeling of discrimination and resulting humiliation in your growing up years to understand our motivation," Kanshiram would often tell the growing tribe of journalists who would gather at his house.

It was this sense of discrimination during schooldays that motivated B R Ambedkar to venture on the path he took and become the foremost articulator of the political aspirations of Dalits in the country. Yet Ambedkar remained somewhat detached from the masses - both because of his sartorial choices, which projected him as a brown sahib more than anything else, and because he did not practise mass politics. What was it that made Kanshiram steer clear of the Ambedkarite path and branch out on his own and set up one organisation after another till he eventually founded the BSP in 1984? Yet why did Mayawati and her mentor not jettison Ambedkar from their pantheon of icons? These are not easy questions, and the book explores them creditably.

Badri Narayan is at his best in the intensely polemical chapter titled "The Chamcha Age". It is a take-off of The Chamcha Age: An Era of the Stooges, a book that Kanshiram wrote in 1982. The author shows how Kanshiram stood out from other Scheduled Caste leaders. One gets to see Ambedkar, Jagjivan Ram and even a contemporary, Ram Vilas Paswan, through the prism of Kanshiram and understand why they fell in the category of what he derogatorily referred to as chamchas, or stooges. In the history of the Dalit movement in India, the Poona pact, an agreement between Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi, is quite often presented as a major watershed that greatly benefited the cause of the Dalits. But Kanshiram had a different view, and chose to release his book on the golden jubilee of the pact. While the Congress celebrated the Poona pact with much fanfare, Kanshiram's portrayal of Gandhi was at odds with the official view; he argued that the Poona pact was responsible for putting back the cause of the Dalits and their politics.

The author is clearly handicapped by a paucity of material on Kanshiram, especially of his formative years. As a result, it is difficult to form a comprehensive view of what led him to embark on the path that he consciously chose. The motivation stated in the book - that Kanshiram was propelled by the desire to secure more dignity for his people - does not take into account personal motivations. This results in the creation of a halo around Kanshiram's personality, and this is disconcerting.

There can be no comprehensive study of Kanshiram without a detailed assessment of his relationship with Mayawati and vice versa. But the book sticks to the approach often adopted by serious scholars who steer clear of personal relationships of leaders. Kanshiram's "will" is revealing; it said that, after his death, his ashes were not to be immersed in holy rivers, as is common practice, and instead should be kept in the party office. He also "willed" that after Mayawati's death, her ashes should not be immersed but be placed next to his. In presenting this without comment, the author becomes a dutiful biographer - which is a running deficiency through the book. It is rich in narration and analysis, but we do not get to read the mind of the author.

First Published: Sun, June 22 2014. 22:25 IST