It was always hard to find many takers for Kanshi Ram among India's English language media. While even certified hatemongers and graft-kings earned respectful questions and puff pieces, Kanshi Ram (and most others associated with the BSP, most prominently Mayawati) had to be content with condescension, the barely concealed contempt and dismay of the relatively well-heeled at the sort of chap Indian democracy had thrown up. Certainly the man was not without his flaws, even an ugly side (it is hard to forgive and forget some of his public statements from the late-1980s, nor am I particularly inclined to), yet one is justified in wondering why is it the likes of L.K. Advani found it much easier to live down his rabblerousing and re-invent himself in the eyes of the media, than Kanshi Ram or his protege Mayawati.
Love him or hate him, however, Kanshi Ram was one of the prime movers behind one of the most important movements in post-independence Indian politics, namely that of Dalit assertion, and more broadly "Bahujan" mobilization. And while the movement has always had to walk a tightrope between vaccuous cynicism (one needs allies, yet every opportunistic alliance -- in the case of Kanshi Ram's Bahujan Samaj Party a virtual merry-go-round with the Samajwadi Party, the BJP, and the Congress -- exacts a toll) and the principled insignificance of the Left parties in much of India, Kanshi Ram's abiding significance lies in this: by the time he was through, no-one, certainly not the Congress, could ever take Dalit votes for granted in North India, and to Kanshi Ram and his colleagues must go the palm for presenting Dalit/Bahujan claims, Dalit/Bahujan politics, with a permanent urgency, one even our bankrupt chattering classes found it impossible to ignore.
Significantly, while Kanshi Ram was hardly the first theorist of (what we now call) the Dalitbahujan "majority", to him must go the palm of rendering that imagining concrete to some degree. And it should not be forgotten that while all identity politics suffers from an in-built problematic of reification and/or essentialism, the logic of Bahujan-ism of necessity involves coalition building, seeking allies, the construction of local, grassroots bridges between those who imagine themselves members of different and disparate communities -- that is, the Bahujan ideology is, despite some of the more militant rhetoric the movement's votaries have at times indulged in, at bottom inconsistent with the grand cleansing gestures, the oppressive and exclusionary projects that we have come to recognize as the hallmark of modern politics. Such "work" is of course always "in progress"; but for continuing, and in such a concrete way, the work of imagining a new community, based not on blood but to a large extent (alas, not totally) on disadvantage, two cheers are due to Kanshi Ram.
Far more remains to be done, of course. And I am one of those who have watched the BSP's devolution into just another player on the Uttar Pradesh political scene with great dismay (certainly by now the promise of those heady 1993 days when, in alliance with the Samajwadi Party, it seemed a subaltern churning was at hand in Uttar Pradesh, seems at best a distant memory), yet I remain (very cautiously) hopeful. At a minimum, however, what the BSP needs is a coherent ideology, or an ideology beyond that of mere representation. As yet, there is no sign that Mayawati and co. are up to the task; on the other hand, there is as yet no sign that the urgency of the movement is so dissipated by the demands (real and imagined) of politicking that anything goes (and the BSP would do well to remember that fact).