Ram Vilas Paswan — a ‘kingmaker’ who outlasted many kings

By: |
October 9, 2020 9:59 AM

He was at times mocked as 'mausam vaigyanik' (weatherman) for his skill to navigate his ways into an alliance that would eventually come to power after elections.

He had formed the Dalit Sena in 1980 to voice the issues related to Scheduled Castes.

In politics people you support may forget you sometimes but if you attack a group, then they will never forget and forgive you, Ram Vilas Paswan once said in an informal get-together when someone prodded him on the secret of goodwill and warm equations he enjoyed across parties of contrasting ideological hues and communities.

This kernel of Paswan’s political philosophy may well explain his durability as a successful politician who might not have ever been a king but as a “kingmaker”, as he often described himself, outlasted many kings in his illustrious career of more than five decades.

The veteran Dalit leader died on Thursday at the age of 74 at a private hospital here where he had recently undergone a heart operation.

Paswan believed in making friends and building bridges, and if he did once in a while make angry comments against rivals, then it was mostly guided more by the demands of realpolitik and quickly forgotten.

He took pride in describing himself as a cementing force among, at times, warring allies.

Elected for the first time as an MLA in 1969 as a member of an anti-Congress front after quitting his job as a police official, he rose through the ranks of various socialist parties, which changed forms with a periodic interval, and became a leading Dalit face.

Born in Khagaria in Bihar in 1946, Paswan was elected to Lok Sabha eight times and was currently a Rajya Sabha member.

K C Tyagi of the Janatal Dal (United), who was with Paswan in the Charan Singh-led Lok Dal for years and described him as a socialist colleague of over 45 years, said the Lok Janshakti Party founder played a key role in consolidating Dalits in north India and remained their voice.

His death brings the curtains downs on yet another leading socialist politician associated with the anti-Emergency movement of 1975-77.

He would fondly recite a few poems, some of which he wrote himself, imbued with political and social messages.

He was one of the key ministers in the V P Singh government, which came to power in 1989, and pushed for implementing the Mandal Commission report, which recommended reservation for other backward classes, upending the pivot of politics, especially in Hindi-speaking states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh forever.

Paswan’s simplicity and sincerity will remain exemplary, Tyagi said.

It is an ode to his politics of bridging social or political divides that he was one of the most liked state leaders among the upper castes even though he drew his support mostly from Dalits, a group which at times shared antagonistic relations with the more prosperous communities due to a number of social and political reasons.

It is also a tribute to his worth as a politician and his warm acceptance across parties as contrasting in their ideologies as the Congress and the BJP that he was courted by arch rivals like Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Sonia Gandhi and served as a valuable minister in the BJP-led NDA as well as the Congress-led UPA governments.

When he quit the Vajpayee government due to his growing differences with the saffron party, he had also attacked the then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi but when he joined hands with the Modi-led BJP in 2014, he soon became a trusted colleague of the prime minister, especially on Dalit issues.

In the first half of his political life, he was a sharp critic of the RSS and, though he mellowed down later, Paswan continued to maintain that the Hindutva organisation needed to change its image among Dalits.

He was, however, also an enthusiastic supporter of PM Modi’s works for Dalits and took on the government’s critics over the issue.

He was at times mocked as ‘mausam vaigyanik’ (weatherman) for his skill to navigate his ways into an alliance that would eventually come to power after elections.

However, many believed it was an over simplification and noted that he was almost forced to quit the UPA in 2014 after Lalu Prasad’s RJD argued that the Lok Janshakti Party should not be given more than three seats in the Lok Sabha polls.

His decision to not ally with the Congress in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls boomeranged on him as he suffered a rare loss in his own seat and then remained out of the UPA-2 government.

Always a part of national politics, Paswan nursed his vote bank in the state, unlike many of his contemporaries who faded away as their disconnect with grassroots grew.

He had formed the Dalit Sena in 1980 to voice the issues related to Scheduled Castes.

His death, however, could not have come at a more inopportune time for his 37-year-old son Chirag Paswan, who is now heading the party his father founded in 2000.

No longer in the ruling National Democratic Alliance in Bihar, Chirag Paswan is taking on Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) as well as the opposition alliance in the assembly polls and will miss out on his father’s experience of deftly navigating several such crises in the past.

Paswan’s death may also spark an upsurge of support for his scion among his party’s supporters and sympathisers.

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