Ram Vilas Paswan's Unforgettable Political Acumen

Few leaders in post-independence India could match his weathervane capabilities.

Patna: Dalits in Bihar often raised the slogan, “Upar aasman, neeche Paswan (The sky above, Paswan on the land)” to hail Ram Vilas Paswan, much before the emergence of Kanshi Ram and his protégée, Mayawati, in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh.

The slogan portrayed the feeling that one can rely on the sky for the rains to irrigate farms, and Ram Vilas Paswan on Earth to ensure the well-being of Dalits and underprivileged sections.

In terms of political clout, the Kanshi Ram-founded Bahujan Samaj Party emerged relatively stronger, with Mayawati getting multiple opportunities to lead the most populous state and her party expanding its base in Punjab and some other states in the Hindi heartland. But Paswan remained the undisputed leader of the underprivileged sections – particularly the Paswans – in Bihar. Mayawati made many forays into Bihar, but failed to challenge Paswan’s influence.

In fact, Paswan can be described as the most successful leader to emerge from a Dalit community in national politics in the last 50 years. Few leaders in post-independence India could match his weathervane capabilities. That he was the smartest in judging whom to side with is evident from the fact that he was the part of the so many councils of ministers – in the V.P. Singh, H.D. Devegowda, I.K. Gujaral, A.B. Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh governments.

He breathed his last on Thursday while a member of the Narendra Modi cabinet.

While remaining in national politics, Paswan was rooted in Bihar and played decisive roles in making or breaking governments in his home state. It was he who played the key role in dethroning the 15-year-old Lalu-Rabri regime in 2005 and paving the way for Nitish Kumar to become chief minister.

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Lalu Prasad Yadav, whose wife Rabri Devi was then the Bihar chief minister, insisted on the railway ministry and bagged it when the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance took over from A.B. Vajpayee in 2004. Paswan too was eying that ministry. He felt humiliated, vowed to avenge this.

While staying a Union minister in the UPA government, he fielded Lok Janshakti Party candidates against Lalu’s RJD and won 29 seats in the February 2005 assembly polls. The RJD, which had 81 seats and was the single-largest party, couldn’t have formed the government without Paswan’s support. Paswan didn’t support the RJD and subsequently, president’s rule was imposed in Bihar. The JDU-BJP combine came to power when elections took place again in November 2005.

In fact, Ram Vilas Paswan’s son, Chirag Paswan is trying to do to Nitish Kumar in 2020 what his father had done to Lalu in 2005. In a way, Chirag has followed his father’s footsteps in power politics.

But Ram Vilas Paswan’s debut in politics was drastically different from that of Chirag. The firebrand leader that the senior Paswan was, he was deeply influenced by the Tamil Nadu revolutionary leader, E.V. Ramasamy commonly known as Periyar. Ram Vilas used to share Periyar’s stories with his peers while learning the ropes of politics in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Paswan’s karma bhoomi was in Bihar, with socialist patriarch Ram Manohar Lohia influencing young people in the Hindi heartland in a big way in the 1960s. Paswan adopted the Lohia brand of socialism and B.R. Ambedkar’s philosophy to carry forward his politics in the state.

Also read: Bihar Elections: What the LJP Hopes to Achieve By Walking Out of the NDA

He joined Lohia’s Samyukta Socialist Party (SSP) in the 1960s and was elected as an MLA for the first time from his home seat of Alauli in 1969 – much before the emergence of Lalu and Nitish on the state’s political horizons.

A good communicator with the masses and capable of building cadres, he rose quickly in politics. He shifted his base to Hajipur – a Lok Sabha seat reserved for Scheduled Caste candidates – in 1977 and won it with such a huge margin on the Janata Party ticket that he earned a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. Subsequently, Hajipur became his pocket borough and he won it several times.

Paswan’s political wisdom can be gauged from the fact that he played the key role in the fall of the Vajpayee government in 1998. But then, he became the cabinet minister in the Vajpayee government when it came to power again in 1999.

Similarly, he resigned from the Vajpayee cabinet in 2003 on the issue of the riots in Gujarat while Narendra Modi was the chief minister and shifted to the UPA. He became a minister in the Manmohan Singh-led UPA in 2004 and remained one through the UPA’s rule.

However, he shifted to the NDA in 2014 and became a minister in the Narendra Modi government. He died on Thursday as a minister under the leader he had resigned opposing on the issue of the riots in Gujarat in 2003.

Will his young son, Chirag, be able to carry forward his illustrious father’s legacy? The results of the assembly elections on November 10 may provide clues on his prospects.

Nalin Verma is a senior journalist and author of the Gopalganj to Raisina: My Political Journey, Lalu Prasad Yadav’s autobiography. He has also authored The Greatest Folk Tales of Bihar.