The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and its rival, the Congress Party, have been competing over the legacy of BR Ambedkar, who chaired the committee that drafted the Constitution of India.
There are those who believe that the Congress sidelined Ambedkar for several decades, downplaying considerably his difference with former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. That is, until the BJP jumped into the fray. Others find BJP's Hindutva ideology to be completely at odds with the Dalit leader's beliefs, who fought against Hindu fundamentalism and the caste system.
Interestingly, India's newly elected president, Ram Kumar Kovind, also a Dalit, once observed that it would take longer to beat caste discrimination in India than racial discrimination in the US because caste was condoned by the Hindu religion.
Over the next two days, the Congress Party will once again stake its claim over Ambedkar at a conference called the Quest for Equity, hosted by the Karnataka government in Bengaluru from July 21-23. Headlining the event is Martin Luther King III, human rights advocate and the son of the Martin Luther King Jr, who led the civil rights movement and fought for racial equality in the United States.
The premise for the three-day conference is that Dalits, Adivasis and minorities are being denied access and opportunities under the Modi government, while the BJP furthers its ideological agenda. Over 300 speakers from India and overseas have gathered to discuss "equity". They will speak on ideas of justice (political, economic and social and religious), constitutionalism, rule of law, secularism and cultural pluralism.
At the end of the conference, the Congress will produce a document called the 'New Deal', with constitutional, institutional and policy responses to the problems of social justice, freedom of speech and inequality. The party believes this conference is a watershed moment for it, and the 'New Deal' would be a roadmap to challenge the BJP government in the run-up to the 2019 general election.
In a conversation with HuffPost India at the Karnataka Bhawan in Delhi, K Raju, president of the Congress' Scheduled Castes department and HC Mahadevappa, the minister for public works in the Karnataka government, talked about the Quest for Equity conference, and why the Congress, not the BJP, was the true keeper of Ambedkar's legacy.
Raju, a former bureaucrat from Andhra Pradesh, spoke mostly—about the Congress' counter-narrative to beat the BJP in the 2019 election and why he continues to have faith in the leadership of Vice-President Rahul Gandhi.
What is the Quest for Equity conference about?
KR: We have seen how over the past three years, freedom of speech, fundamentals of democracy and right to a better quality of life are getting eroded. This conference is the coming together of progressive forces from across the country and other countries. We have been able to put together hundreds of such people who are working on rights related to equity. They are coming together to share their experience, to acknowledge what is happening in this country and to take note of the unfinished agenda for establishing equity.
Can you put the conference in a political context?
KR: The kind of anguish that Dalit communities across the country have shown, the incidents of intolerance, forms the background of this conference. The participants will reflect on these developments of over the past three-and-a-half years. It is the anniversary of the Una incident (Dalits were flogged in Gujarat for skinning a dead cow last year). The government in parallel is creating an atmosphere for more such incidents without taking any proper action.
Freedom of speech, fundamentals of democracy and right to a better quality of life are getting eroded.
Both the BJP and Congress are vying for Dr Ambedkar's legacy. Does the Congress make a better case for it?
KR: I think there is a fundamental difference between the two parties. The Bharatiya Jana Sangh and Hindu Mahasabha opposed the Constitution and never believed in constitutional principles. They burnt the Indian Constitution in various places in the country. The Congress helped bring in and followed the Constitution.
The ideology of the Congress Party is to promote harmony among different communities, the ideology of the BJP is to divide for political gain. BJP believes in tokenism as far as these communities are concerned, while the Congress has put in place policies and legislation for improvement.
The most important difference is that the Congress believes in the Ambedkar ideology of the annihilation of caste, while the BJP believes in strengthening the caste hierarchies so that the dominance of the upper castes can be perpetuated. It is time for the youth to know where the Congress and the BJP are coming from. I think this conference will bring out that distinction very clearly.
How do you explain BJP winning 69 out of 85 reserved seats in the UP Assembly election?
KR: In UP, polarisation was carefully crafted and executed, which explains the results. But polarisation does not stay for long. It can't be sustained and it it won't give you political dividends. We are sure that by 2019, the same communities would have realised the true character of the BJP and would go beyond polarisation.
But the BJP appears to be eroding caste-based voting and uniting them under the Hindu banner. They have changed the narrative from minority appeasement to keeping the majority happy, forcing other parties to follow suit.
KR: We are not following the narrative of appeasement and polarisation. We have initiated a process of changing the narrative to bring in real issues on the ground. We want to talk about individual autonomy. We would like to talk about the BJP's failure in creating jobs and securing economic growth to provide employment. The BJP had promised two crore jobs every year. They have so far delivered hardly two lakh jobs in the last three years.
Why are jobs not getting created? It is primarily because the entire financial resources are held by 10 to 15 private sector companies, and these are the people who are promoted by the party, who run the government. They have sucked up all the public finances into their hands. Money is not available for new enterprises to come up and for new jobs to be created. This is what the Congress Party is going to show and this is what will connect to us to the youth.
So what is the counter-narrative?
KR: The Congress Party has already come up with a counter-narrative which is slowly gaining ground. We are looking closely at job creation and economic growth. This should concern the citizens. We are saying that the Congress Party knows how to do it. The Congress Party has done it in the past. We know this business clearly. You (BJP) don't know how to do it.
This conference hopes to come out with a 'New Deal' which we want to take to the voter—this is how the economy will grow, this is how jobs will be created, this is how discrimination will be addressed.
We have initiated a process of changing the narrative.
At this point, HC Mahadevappa, minister for public works in the Karnataka government, chimed in about the Conference. He explained what the 'New Deal', the outcome document of the Conference, would be about.
HCM: A small percentage of fundamentalist fascists are threatening the secular fabric of the country. Democracy is in danger. Because Congress has led the freedom movement, we wanted to have one more movement to protect our Constitution, strengthen our democracy, rebuild India. This is our 'New Deal' which will emerge out of this Conference.
The BJP had a vote share of 31% in the 2014 general election (the lowest of any party to win a majority) and the Congress had around 20% (19.3% to be precise but higher than the BJP's 18.5% in 2009). We will revive, we will fight back on secularism, on the Constitution and democracy. We will realign our forces and we will reemerge with a 'New Deal.'
Karnataka is one of the few Congress bastions remaining in the country. How will you hold on to it?
HCM: Congress is doing satisfactorily in the state. Whatever promises were made by the Congress Party our Chief Minister (Siddaramaiah) has fulfilled. We will come back with a majority. We had severe droughts in the state for the past two years but no one has moved out of the state because of starvation. The two by-election victories for the Congress showed that there is no anti-incumbency. This is the one government which has given whatever Babasaheb Ambedkar has said in the Constitution to protect the interests of the Dalits through budgetary decisions. No amount of social engineering on the part of Amit Shah will work in the state. Karnataka is not Uttar Pradesh. Karnataka is secular.
We will revive, we will fight back. We will realign force and we will reemerge.
A few weeks ago, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar said that the Congress alone was "responsible for the current mess" in the Opposition. What about concerns that Rahul Gandhi is not an effective leader?
KR: It depends on your definition of a leader. Is a leader someone who makes false promises and speaks like a drama artist? Rahul-ji has an understanding of the challenges this country is facing. He is a highly informed and principled person who respects the constitutional values of this country and is committed to protecting the idea of India.
There are concerns that Rahul Gandhi does not connect with the public.
KR: People are so much used to dramatic speeches that the prime minister is making and if Rahul-ji is not making such speeches then they don't find him matching the PM. This is only a transitory phase. When it comes to delivering, people will soon realise that these are all false promises, jumla and all that, with nothing happening on the ground.
The perception is...
KR: The present perception is misplaced. They are based on a wrong understanding of what kind of leader you want. In the years to come, the country will look up to Rahul-ji. You tell me is there a single issue — whether it is farmer issues, atrocities on Dalits or intolerance towards minorities — on which he has not rushed to the field and led from the front? What else do you expect from a leader?
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