Politics and play - Ramachandra Guha
Ambedkar being presented a copy of the draft Constitution
In this election season, I have been thinking a great deal about B.R. Ambedkar — about Ambedkar the theorist of democracy, rather than Ambedkar the emancipator of the Dalits. I have been recalling, and returning to, a remarkable speech he delivered to the Constituent Assembly of India on November 25, 1949. Here he uttered three warnings. One pertained to the dangers in eschewing constitutional methods for unregulated street protest, which he characterized as “the grammar of anarchy”. A second drew a distinction between political democracy on the one hand and social democracy on the other. With the Constitution, every adult Indian would have the vote, thus ensuring political equality. And yet, remarked Ambedkar, “on the social plane, we have in India a society based on the principle of graded inequality which means elevation for some and degradation for others. On the economic plane, we have a society in which there are some who have immense wealth as against many who live in abject poverty.” If this disjunction between political rights and social disprivilege persisted, warned Ambedkar, “those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has so laboriously built up.”
These two warnings remain pertinent. However, in the context of the present elections per se, it is the third of Ambedkar’s warnings that needs to be more urgently recalled. This asked Indians not to blindly and uncritically follow a particular leader. Ambedkar quoted the liberal thinker, John Stuart Mill, who had said that the citizens of a democracy must never “lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or ...trust him with powers which enable him to subvert their institutions”.
Ambedkar remarked that “there is nothing wrong in being grateful to great men who have rendered life-long services to the country. But there are limits to gratefulness. As has been well said by the Irish patriot Daniel O’Connell, no man can be grateful at the cost of his honour, no women can be grateful at the cost of her chastity and no nation can be grateful at the cost of its liberty”. Then he continued: “This caution is far more necessary in the case of India than in the case of any other country. For in India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.”
Ambedkar was here uttering a generalized warning. But did he also have any particular individual in mind? Ambedkar had long been critical of what he saw as the excessive adulation of Mahatma Gandhi by his countrymen. Now, in the immediate aftermath of Independence, he could see the enormous prestige that men like Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel commanded. They and their Congress Party had participated in an arduous and extended struggle for freedom. The years they had spent in jail demanded attention, and respect. Ambedkar could see all this, and was worried about the consequences. Just because Gandhi and Nehru had rendered ‘lifelong services to the country’, did it mean that their actions or ideas were immune from critical scrutiny? Was their record of patriotism enough reason for the ordinary citizen to follow them implicitly and unquestioningly?