Ram Vilas Paswan has come a long way since 1969, but he seems resigned to being the facilitator of power arrangements, not the pivot.
While campaigning during the 1991 mid-term Lok Sabha polls at PW High School in Khagaria, a sleepy district town in Seemanchal region of Bihar, Lal Krishna Advani punned: “Ram Vilasji kehte hain ki Ramji kahan aur kab the. Main unse yeh puchhna chahta hoon ki agar Ramji nahi the to Ram Vilas kahan se aaye (Ram Vilas keeps saying when and where Lord Ram was. I want to ask Ram Vilas that if Lord Ram wasn’t there, where did Ram Vilas come from?”
The senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader was taking potshots at Ram Vilas Paswan, then a prominent face of the now defunct Janata Dal in Bihar and a former minister in the VP Singh-led National Front coalition government (December 1989-November 1990)—an arrangement which collapsed after the withdrawal of outside support by Advani’s BJP.
Little did Advani know then that Paswan would show deft political footwork to have a ministerial berth in all the coalition governments at the Centre formed since, including the three coalition governments led by Advani’s party. In doing so, the Hajipur MP has gone on to hold ministerial positions under six Prime Ministers and four different coalitions: the VP Singh-led National Front, the HD Deve Gowda and IK Gujral-led United Front, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee and now Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance, and the Dr Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance.
Often seen as a weather vane of the shifting political fortunes in Delhi’s corridors of power, Ram Vilas Paswan has to count among the most consummate survivors of power politics in the country. With a divided legacy of Dalit leadership in the state and criticism about his rank opportunism, 2019 marks 50 years of his life in active politics. But for the first time in the last 42 years, the eight-time Lok Sabha MP isn’t contesting the parliamentary polls this year.
Paswan’s political journey of half a century is something that even his son and MP Chirag Paswan reminded his voters about as he sought re-election from Jamui, a reserved constituency, in the recently concluded first phase of polling for the 17th Lok Sabha. For all practical purposes, Chirag is seen as the heir apparent in his father’s plans. However, Paswan’s stronghold of Hajipur—a reserved constituency he represented seven of the eight times he went to the Lok Sabha—is now being contested by his younger brother Pashupati Kumar Paras, a minister in the Nitish Kumar government in Bihar.
Not very far from where Advani was speaking that sultry evening in 1991, Ram Vilas Paswan achieved his first significant electoral success in 1969—much before his Jayaprakash Narayan movement peers in Bihar and other Hindi heartland states. He was 23 when he was elected MLA on a Samyukta Socialist Party ticket from Alauli reserved Assembly seat. His village, Shaharbanni, comes under Alauli block in Khagaria district.
In the same year, he cleared the Bihar provincial civil services examination and was allotted provincial police service, starting as a deputy superintendent of police. But Paswan preferred a political career to that of a police officer. Decades later he remembered how he decided to pursue a role as an MLA, rather than settling for a government job.
Three years later, he received a jolt as he lost his seat in the 1972 Bihar Assembly polls before joining the Lok Dal. He rose in the party organisation while ideologically he identified with the anti-Congress ferment of the times led by Jayaprakash Narayan and Raj Narain. He followed the familiar course of many young leaders who made political capital out of the anti-Emergency stir mobilisation of the JP movement.
In the 1977 Lok Sabha polls, Paswan emphatically retrieved his electoral ground in Hajipur while contesting on a Janata Party ticket. He won the constituency, which was declared reserved in the same year, with a margin of 4.24 lakh votes. This record-breaking world margin made its way into the Guinness Book of World Records and was only broken 14 years later by PV Narasimha Rao in 1991. Rao won from the Nandyal constituency in Andhra Pradesh by 5 lakh votes after becoming prime minister.
Except three instances, Paswan has retained the Hajipur seat in the Lok Sabha since 1977. He failed to do so in 1984 (defeated by Congress candidate Ram Ratan Ram), in 1991 he had contested from Rosera and won, and in 2009 he suffered a shock defeat at the hands of JD(U)’s Ram Sundar Das, former chief minister of Bihar.
It was in the late 1980s that he made his way to a ministerial berth at the Centre as welfare and labour minister in VP Singh’s government. As an MP of the newly-formed and faction-ridden Janata Dal, he aligned himself with various groups within the party and its splinter off-shoots to retain the ministerial office in the second half of the 1990s under two United Front prime ministers and later under the BJP-led NDA government.
Though he had forayed into setting up a outfit called the Dalit Sena as early as 1983, it was only in 2000 that he set up his political party: the Lok Janshakti Party. He was a central minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government then, a position from which he resigned in 2002 following the communal violence in Gujarat.
Despite holding different portfolios in different central governments, it was a phase when Paswan wasn’t satisfied with magnifying his limited political clout in Bihar to gain ministerial rewards in Delhi. His JP movement peers, and even juniors, were heading Lohiaite and post-Mandal reconfigurations of power arrangements in Hindi heartland states and even occupying chief ministerial offices, particularly in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Even Dalit leadership was getting consolidated as key stakeholders in the power equations of neighbouring Uttar Pradesh.
Paswan was keen on expanding his constricted political space in Bihar. Besides a section of Dalits, the minorities support was crucial. In hindsight, his decision to leave the NDA government in 2002 could be seen in this context. Unlike previous state Assembly elections, he was eager to make LJP a key player in the 2005 Bihar Assembly polls. Before that, under his leadership, the LJP did join the UPA government at the Centre in 2004—quite a point of departure for a leader who had based his career and rhetoric on anti-Congressism.
It was in 2005 that the LJP got closest to playing kingmaker in the formation of the state government in Bihar. However, it couldn’t capitalise as the stalemate resulting from a fractured verdict forced President’s rule and fresh elections. The LJP did manage to secure 12 per cent of the votes and 29 seats in the 243-member Assembly but made its support to either the BJP-JD(U) or the Rashtriya Janta Dal contingent upon the government being headed by a Muslim chief minister. Both the RJD and NDA rejected Paswan’s move to dictate their choice of chief minister. The party’s insistence didn’t cut much ice with the electorate either and the LJP was reduced to 10 seats in the fresh elections held in autumn of the same year. That’s when Nitish Kumar’s NDA scored a landslide victory to form the government.
The limited nature of the LJP’s appeal to all sections of Dalits has been a stumbling block for Paswan’s ambitions to emerge as the pivot of Dalit leadership in Bihar. Paswan’s party hasn’t been spread across caste groups which constitute the Dalit population in Bihar. Its loyal support has been restricted to Dusadhs, the caste to which Paswan himself belongs and which is considered relatively prosperous among Dalit groups in the state.
Nitish Kumar government’s mahadalit welfare measures made such distinctions a matter of policy formulation and execution. In drafting and implementing the policy, the state government divided Bihar’s Dalit population into two categories on the basis of social, economic and educational attainments. Out of 14 Dalit caste groups in the state, 13 were categorised as mahadalit and beneficiaries of specific welfare schemes. Dusadhs, classified as relatively better-off, was classified as a separate group and not entitled to special schemes.
Nitish Kumar even nurtured mahadalit leaders like Jitan Ram Manjhi, who had a brief chief ministerial stint before leaving the JD(U) to form the Hindustan Awam Party (Secular) in 2015. Though the mahadalit policy didn’t dent Paswan’s consolidated Dusadh support base, it did manage to restrict a significant expansion of his party’s appeal to other scheduled caste groups within the Dalit fold. It was evident in the post-poll research done by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies on the 2010 and 2015 Assembly election results (published as Post-Mandal Politics In Bihar: Volume 1, Sage) .
In the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, Paswan suffered a shock defeat in his stronghold of Hajipur and had to take the Rajya Sabha route to enter Parliament. In pursuit of finding an independent turf in Bihar, he had distanced himself from the Congress and later the RJD, one of its UPA allies. The distance from a ministerial berth in the UPA-2 government didn’t leave him with much political incentive.
By early 2014, Paswan had made it clear that he would be resigning from his Rajya Sabha membership to contest from Hajipur. More significantly, the party made a swift move to re-enter the NDA under the leadership of Narendra Modi. The LJP contested from seven seats, including Paswan’s son Chirag. Riding high on the Modi wave of 2014, the party won six seats. Paswan wrested back his Hajipur seat while Chirag won the Jamui seat.
However, it’s not only the LJP which benefitted from Narendra Modi’s popularity; the CSDS study found a positive effect of BJP’s alliance with LJP on a section of Dalit votes in Bihar. It stated: “Amongst all Dalit castes, 42 per cent voted for the BJP and its alliance, while only 10 per cent voted for the RJD-Congress alliance and 20 per cent voted for the JD(U) in spite of the ruling party’s efforts towards social and economic development of people belonging to these castes by declaring them as Mahadalits. The BJP was even more successful in mobilising voters from the Paswan caste (Dusadh) within the Dalits due to its alliance with Ram Vilas Paswan. Amongst the Dusadhs, the Dalit caste to which Ram Vilas Paswan himself belongs, 68 per cent voted for the BJP and its allies, while 10 per cent among them voted for the RJD-Congress alliance and only 6 per cent of them voted for the JD(U).”
That the reciprocity of interests underpins the alliance would be stating the obvious. That, however, hasn’t made Paswan oblivious to the anxieties of his core support group. A case in point is his active role in getting the Union Cabinet to restore the original provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, which the Supreme Court had struck down in its March 2018 ruling.
In doing so, Paswan has somehow ensured that he’s seen making the right noises by the section of the electorate who have kept him afloat for half a century now. Perhaps resigned to the fate of being a facilitator of power arrangement in Delhi and Patna and never the pivot of it, Ram Vilas Paswan again seems set to look for his little space in the Raisina equations on May 23. Machiavellian tenacity, much to his dismay, might remain one of the enduring legacies of his long political innings. Some may add to that his role in mainstreaming Dalit identity politics and its concerns in Bihar, though only a part of it. One may also, of course, include his trademark: “uu kya kehte hai ki”.