A Lesson From Ambedkar’s Unusual Choice of Symbol During 1937 Poll

Elections in any democracy can be understood as providing an opportunity for foregrounding various kinds of issues and desires in the public domain for a mass consideration. In the 2019 election, political parties have found it important to foreground a multiplicity of issues before the electorate, ranging from terrorism and national security to poverty and unemployment, etc. The time of an election, thus, provides us with a condensed moment in the political life of any country when the decision about its future orientation becomes possible for its people on such a large scale.

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The formal quality of elections in a democracy as providing such an opportunity cannot be overlooked, even as one argues that elections are not to be made into the sole test for assessing the value of democracy in any country. With such a view in mind, BR Ambedkar’s engagement with elections assumes a pedagogical importance for us today. How did Ambedkar view elections? What issues and desires did he consider important to foreground at the time of an election? We seek to respond to these questions through an explication of Ambedkar’s experiment with electoral democracy.

Foregrounding the Concern of Manuski

It is no secret, though it may be puzzling, as to why Ambedkar was a failed politician, in terms of his electoral involvement. Ambedkar had on multiple occasions contested elections, losing many but winning some, out of which an important early victory was in the 1937 provincial election to the Central Legislative Assembly where Ambedkar was elected from the Central Bombay constituency from the Independent Labour Party (ILP) that he had founded in 1936.

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What is important here in assessing the stakes involved in an election is not Ambedkar’s victory as such but something else, something very peculiar which otherwise evades our attention. Ambedkar had stood as a candidate from the Central Bombay constituency in the 1937 election with a very unusual symbol for the ILP. Usually, the criterion of choosing a symbol for political parties is its resonating power with the masses. Hence, symbols of an everyday import are used which are also easily recognisable. Moreover, party symbols are usually objects taken up from household, agricultural-industrial, and natural, etc. occurrences, making its mass familiarity into a possible ground for its mass validation in the election.

However, ILP’s symbol with which Ambedkar contested this election was the symbol of a human being, or ‘manoos’! It was unconventional mainly in comparison to the symbols used by other parties (which are more or less the same even today) representing tangible items, mostly showcasing promises to this or that service, this or that good. But Ambedkar, in putting forth the figure of the human being perhaps raises the question of our manuski or humanity as such for the first time in relation to an election. Given Ambedkar’s anti-caste politics, it is not difficult to imagine what this figure was meant to represent- a claim to dignity and self-respect, a claim to being a human in a caste-ridden society.

Foreground the Exceptional, and not the Everyday

The symbol for Ambedkar’s ILP stands radically differently among the other symbols found on the ballot paper listing the candidates in the 1937 election. The criterion here is not the resonating power inherent in the everydayness of objects, it is quite its reverse. Ambedkar’s criterion for symbolisation for the ILP was to foreground the exceptional and not the everyday. For humanity could only ever be exceptional to the norms of caste-society in India.

One can read this instance to see an election as presenting an opportunity for Ambedkar to foreground new norms that a society desires to uphold. However, these norms require their manifestation through signs, symbols, manifestos, texts, slogans, songs, etc. Therefore, even if these manifestations are taken to be as secondary to a party’s actual politics, they, nonetheless, are important both as indicating the party’s commitments and for being a yardstick against which one could measure the party’s performance. Such a relationship between the party’s politics and its public commitments thus gives the voters the chance to assess the correspondence between the two and expose any duplicity in intentions in case the ideal differs from the real politics that the party comes to pursue.

Evoking Desire for Life and Dignity

Thus, Ambedkar in projecting his intentions through a commitment to manuski was able to bring elections to bear a responsibility beyond its procedural function of facilitating a transfer of power in a democracy. What bearing then did this figure of the ‘manoos’ have on Ambedkar’s understanding of elections and by extension politics?

In evoking a desire for a life of dignity and self-respect, Ambedkar opens up the time of an election as a privileged moment for normative transformation when a new norm could be put up for a mass consideration. Indeed, what Ambedkar called ‘manuski’ is transformed here from merely being a symbol of one political party to constituting a test for democracy itself, in that it invites other political forces to respond and deliberatively take a side regarding the value of this new norm of manuski in politics.

(Antaripa Bharali and Ankit Kawade are students of politics at JNU. They can be contacted at antaripabharali1@gmail.com and ankitkawade@hotmail.com. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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