Ram Vilas Paswan (1946-2020), a winner for the marginalised

Published : October 09, 2020 11:07 IST

Ramvilas Paswan, a 2015 picture. Photo: PTI

Long before he inducted Ram Vilas Paswan (July 5, 1946–October 8, 2020) into the Union Ministry in 1989, the then Prime Minister Viswanath Pratap Singh had stated that the young leader could well become the first Dalit Prime Minister of India. Paswan had worked closely with V.P. Singh from 1987 when Singh parted ways with the then Congress Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and launched Jan Morcha, a powerful anti-corruption movement founded on the principles of social justice. There were many other influential young and senior leaders working with V.P. Singh at that time, including Arun Nehru, Arif Mohammed Khan, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, Ram Dhan and Satyapal Malik. But the upper caste Thakur Raja of Manda had singled out, from this group, the barely 40-year-old Dalit leader as a potential future Prime Minister. Paswan did not fulfill V.P. Singh’s prediction but set another unique record, which no political leader of the country had hitherto achieved and would probably not match in the future too. This significant feat is that Paswan was part of almost all Union governments between 1989 and 2020, with only brief periods of being out of power.

In the process, Paswan served as a Minister in the governments of V.P. Singh, H.D. Deve Gowda, I.K. Gujral, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi. During these stints he held important portfolios such as Railways, Labour and Welfare, and Food. At 74, he was Union Minister of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution when he passed away on October 8 at the national capital while recuperating after a recent surgery. The veteran Dalit leader has been keeping indifferent health for the past few months.

Paswan’s singular accomplishment in relation to holding on to power has evoked both admiration as well as contempt from diverse sections of society, including the political class, bureaucracy and the intelligentsia. Paswan’s long-time compatriot in Bihar politics, former Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav, once categorised the Dalit leader as Rajneethik Mausam Vaigyanik (political weathervane), clearly pointing to his uncanny proficiency in identifying the winning side before every general election. This knack resulted in the steady stint in the Union governments with different ideological and political orientations, ranging from Centre-Left and Right to extreme Right.

Thus, barring the 1991-96 period during which the P.V. Narasimha Rao-led Congress government was in power, Paswan was part of all Ministries between 1989 and 2000. Between 1996 and 1998 he worked with Janata Dal Prime Ministers Deve Howda and I.K. Gujral with Congress support, but by the time the 1999 elections happened he had joined hands with the winning Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by A.B. Vajpayee. In 2002, he left the Vajpayee government protesting against the anti-Muslim genocide that happened in Gujarat under the then Chief Minister Narendra Modi. By the time the next elections happened in 2004, he had joined hands with the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), which went on to win the elections. However, when the Narendra Modi-led BJP led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) was surging to power in 2014 following a spate of corruption allegations against the UPA government, Paswan was again on the winning side. His spirited objection 12 years ago to Modi’s “genocide creating“ leadership was, of course, a thing of the past.

During the many travels that this writer had with Paswan during various election campaign tours between 1986 and 2019, there were many discussions on this trait of “ideological looseness“ in his political career. In response, Paswan would time and again hark back to a Dalit’s life in the Hindi heartland and how the average Dalit has to overlook ideological concerns just to survive and make a bare living. “Whether that Dalit is in politics or not doesn’t matter. What matters is whether he or she survives for themselves and for the larger society. Things that one would consider normal for other communities, like getting primary education, is a huge mountain for the Dalit in north India. That is why my MA and LLB were considered Herculean victories in Bihar and are still considered as significant achievements by Dalit communities here. In such a context, what is most important for a Dalit is whether he or she is able to do some good for the marginalised through what may seem to be inconsistent ideological orientations,” Paswan would state with his famous wry smile.

This “survival path“ included many twists and turns, joining and leaving many political organisations and formation of a clutch of self-driven parties. Paswan started his political career as member of the Samyukta Socialist Party (SSP) and was elected to the Bihar Legislative Assembly in 1969. He moved on to the Lok Dal when that party was formed in 1974 by the legendary Jat leader Charan Singh. Along with Charan Singh, Paswan was in the forefront of opposing the draconian Emergency imposed by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975. Paswan was arrested and spent the entire Emergency period, until February 1977, in jail. The Lok Dal merged with other parties, including the Jan Sangh, the erstwhile form of the BJP, to form the Janata Party, and Paswan was elected to the Lok Sabha from Hajipur in Bihar with a record majority of 4.24 lakh votes. He retained the seat in subsequent elections of 1980, 1989, 1996 and 1998, 1999, 2004, and 2014. Through this period he joined and left many parties and alliances and also formed political organisations with different nomenclatures. In 2000, he formed the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) and was elected its president.

Of course, during this trajectory, he steadily commanded about 7 to 8 percentage of the popular vote in Bihar, essentially drawing from his own Dalit community and a number of associate Dalit and Most Backward Caste (MBC )communities. This vote base of the “survivor” made Paswan an important political constituent in his own right to all major players and indeed he made use of it with tremendous political expediency. The expediency was such that almost always, the candidates of his party were mostly his relatives. At this point, of the six LJP Lok Sabha members in the current House, two are Paswan’s brothers and another is his son Chirag.

There is a stream of opinion among a substantial number of political practitioners and observers that the ideological vacillations, political opportunism and familial dependence that remained dominant through Paswan’s political life is something that prevented the spread of his political and organisational influence to other parts of India. The expectations in the mid-1980s was that this “Emergency Warrior" would gain acceptance in Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Punjab and northern and western States of India with a sizable Dalit population. Not only did that not happen, but the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), led by the redoubtable Kanshiram and the mercurial Mayawati, upstaged Paswan in all these States as the main political representative of the Dalit communities. In the final analysis, these setbacks, primarily caused by “unforced errors" is what must have failed  V.P. Singh’s prediction about a potential Dalit Prime Minister. 

As a political leader, Paswan would be remembered in history for the steps he took to get the Mandal Commission report implemented in 1990 during the V.P. Singh government. Paswan was then Minister of Welfare and was among the vociferous campaigners for the implementation of the report. He worked closely with the legendary social justice-oriented civil services officer P.S. Krishnan in this period. This was an association that continued for many decades, until the retired administrator’s death in November 2019.

PSK, as Krishnan was fondly referred to by his friends and associates, would often recount to this writer as to how Paswan’s presence in successive governments with diverse ideological preferences helped retain some priority to social justice-oriented programmes and initiatives, albeit at a scale and level much lower than required. “But Paswan could at least bring this to the notice of the system led by thoroughbred upper caste Brahminical leadership and move things bit by bit. In its own way, these minimal steps too were important. It is of course a moot point whether Paswan and his political outfits could have done better than effect these piecemeal measures for the progress of the marginalised societies.” This thinking aloud by PSK would continue to be a defining point while Paswan’s political life is taken into consideration. The fact that his son Chirag is persisting with similar political manoeuvres in front of the senior Paswan’s peers such as Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav, in the context of yet another Assembly election, could well raise the pitch of this debate.

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