Heir apparent to party chief to exile: How Chirag Paswan overplayed his hand in Bihar politics

After the LJP’s assembly election debacle, new leadership might bring a rapprochement with the JDU. His ouster also points at tussles to claim political legacy in family fiefdoms.

ByAnand Vardhan
Heir apparent to party chief to exile: How Chirag Paswan overplayed his hand in Bihar politics
Gobindh VB
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It was a day that ensured that primetime news shows had an apt song to capture the irony of the turmoil within the Lok Janshakti Party. A KL Saigal number from the 1937 Hindi film President goes like this: Ek bangla bane nyara, rahe kunba jisme saara. Let a unique mansion be built, the one that houses the whole clan.

This is because almost eight months after the death of LJP founder Ram Vilas Paswan, the bangla (mansion), which is also the party symbol, is not showing any signs of a happy family.

Yesterday on Rajendra Prasad road in New Delhi, Chirag Paswan, the late leader’s son and, until that time, the party president, waited for almost 15 minutes at the gates of the residence of his paternal uncle and Hajipur MP Pashupati Kumar Paras. He eventually managed to only meet his aunt; Paras saw no point in meeting the nephew he had ousted as the leader of the LJP’s six-member parliamentary party.

In a coup-like move by party rebels, Chirag has been isolated within the LJP as a new group of five other party MPs has now been recognised by the Lok Sabha speaker. The new group has a clear numerical strength and hence could not be disqualified under anti-defection. Moreover, it has the numbers to claim the status of being the real representatives of the LJP.

In due course, the group divested Chirag Paswan of the party presidency too. It’s likely that Paras, after going through the procedure of an internal poll, will get the party presidency in his stead. Meanwhile, as a stopgap measure, Surabjhan Singh has been made the acting president.

Running out of options, Chirag resorted to expelling the five breakaway MPs in a hurriedly held national executive meet of the party. It seems too little too late, and unlikely to reverse the tide against him anytime soon. The move will only formalise a split in the party.

While Paras has been recognised by the speaker as the leader of the party in the Lok Sabha, Khagaria MP Mehboob Ali Qaiser will be his deputy in the lower house. The other three MPs of the group are Vaishali MP Veena Devi, Nawada MP Chandan Singh, and Samastipur MP Prince Raj, who is also Paras’s nephew and Chirag’s cousin.

The swift turn of events, however, might not surprise those who kept an eye on the party in Bihar. The deep discontent against Chirag had been brewing within the LJP, especially since its estranged NDA party, the Janata Dal United, was perhaps out for political revenge. In a sudden turn of tactics in last year’s assembly election in Bihar, the Chirag-led LJP fielded candidates against alliance partner JDU in as many as 135 seats. The LJP could only win one seat and 5.66 percent of the total votes polled and 10.26 percent of votes in the seats it contested. But it still damaged the JDU’s chances in at least 35 seats, ensuring that the JDU slid to the third spot in the overall seat tally.

Speculation had been rife that Chirag’s attack on chief minister Nitish Kumar, and his pitting of the LJP against the JDU, had the blessing of the JDU’s NDA ally: the Bharatiya Janata Party. Many believed it was a plot to cut Nitish’s party down to size and gain control over him in future power equations. The BJP leadership dismissed these theories, keen on being seen as neutral while dealing with two allies.

But towards the end of the election, the contest with the Rashtriya Janata Dal-led Grand Alliance became too close for comfort. The BJP was alert to the damage that the LJP’s attack on the JDU could inflict on the overall chances of the alliance. The saffron party made extra efforts to distance itself from impressions that it was behind the LJP’s attack on Nitish.

After the NDA won a narrow majority and Nitish returned to power, the JDU did not forget the LJP’s role in its truncated status in the new government. It was helped by the fact that a major part of the LJP’s rank and file was either befuddled or aghast at the party’s strategy in the 2020 state polls. During the campaign, Paras had once praised Nitish for development work. He later had to retract the statement, seemingly at the party leadership’s behest.

Moreover, the BJP, aware of the need to avoid ruffling the JDU’s feathers, was not showing the LJP any post-poll warmth. In recent months, at least 200 LJP workers and leaders joined the JDU; the most prized catch was the lone LJP MLA Raj Kumar Singh. In April this year, Singh, who had won the Matihani constituency in Begusarai district as an LJP candidate, joined the JDU.

Even the BJP was a beneficiary of this drift. In February, the LJP’s lone MLC Nutan Singh decided to join the BJP, leaving the LJP bereft of any representation in either house in Bihar’s bicameral legislature.

The JDU’s retaliatory hand in the latest tumult in the LJP can’t be ruled out. “As you sow, so you reap” was JDU president RCP Singh’s cryptic response when asked to comment on the rebellion in the LJP. Additionally, talks of a possible reshuffle in the council of ministers at the centre may have also played a role. The LJP, as an NDA ally, has been eyeing a berth in the union government, at least the one vacated by Ram Vilas Paswan’s death. The JDU, which had refused to settle for anything less than what it expected in 2019, will also be willing to join now. Offering a berth to the LJP without drawing the JDU’s ire would have been difficult under Chirag’s leadership. The change in the LJP’s leadership might bring about a new phase of LJP-JDU rapprochement within the NDA at the centre as well.

However, the power tussle within the LJP also reflects the large problem of competitive claims on legacy made by Indian political dynasts in general and regional parties in particular. This tussle seems to surface irrespective of whether or not the question of political succession was settled by the founders of the parties during their lifetimes. Family fiefdoms have had their own share of contests for political inheritance in parties ranging from the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu or the Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh to the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra; Lohiaite parties like the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh and the RJD in Bihar. With all indications of political dynasts emerging in parties like the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal and the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha in Jharkhand, to name a few, the turf battle for political legacy is only going to escalate within parties in the future.

The control of a party becomes important for the claimants of “inherited charisma” of the founders. When not leading their own parties, even the membership of an important party is useful for dynasts. Entry-level ease gets the power of institutional appeal when the control over a party or the endorsement of a party is attained.

In Democratic Dynasties: State, Party and Family in Contemporary Indian Politics (2016), their study of the political dynasties in India, New York University-based political scientist Kanchan Chandra and her fellow scholars found something interesting about the Lok Sabha elections of 2004, 2009 and 2014. ”Parties are important,” the study noted. “No dynast in these three Parliaments (2004, 2009, and 2014) who has fought outside of a party structure has won.”

Along with many family fiefdoms in Indian politics, the journey from being a claimant to political legacy to being an accepted legatee isn’t smooth for all. Chirag Paswan had a brief phase of graduating from heir apparent to the man at the helm of the LJP. But he overplayed his hand, that too without having an ear to the ground. For the new LJP leadership, the real challenge will be to reclaim the shrinking ground of its already limited support base. Ram Vilas Paswan didn’t push his party beyond a family enterprise; a new set of his legatees may have fewer reasons to do so.

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