Ram Vilas Paswan
represented the paradox of being the most visible Dalit leader, for the longest period, on the Indian political firmament and yet unable to break through to establish political ground outside his native Bihar.
What defined the affable and indefatigable Paswan was his never-ending desire to be the pan-Indian face of a community whose new-found aspirations coincided with his own rise during the Mandal movement. While the timing could not have been better, he was handicapped by his image as part of the "mainstream", which robbed him of the rebellious edge synonymous with an "outsider".
So when Paswan had hopes soaring, a certain then-nameless fire-breathing Kanshi Ram-Mayawati duo stormed the country and stole much of the thunder. The BSP became what Paswan might have wanted to. Of course, BSP was led by leaders from the Jatav community which has a presence across the country and is numerous. In comparison, Paswans are located in Bihar and while an assertive community, they lack a national spread.
The Bihar leader could never quite overcome the disappointment and kept trying till the end. As he managed to stay in power for ever, he kept going to Uttar Pradesh, the cauldron of new-found Dalit assertion, and attacking Mayawati who commanded the larger Dalit community's loyalty.
But Paswan was a face who played his part in the rebellion of the under classes. As member of VP Singh’s “team” of OBC leaders, he sided with the paradigm-shifting Mandal reservation that shook the established consensus and changed for good the face of politics as was known post-Independence.
The backwards have as much to thank Paswan as the Yadavs like Lalu and Mulayam, just for the energy and force he lent to the controversial move which touched off a reaction that tested many a “mainstream” leader 1990 onwards. He never let his ambitions as a Dalit leader come in the way of power politics which required hobnobbing with OBCs and the compromises it entailed.
Known as “political weathervane”, he managed to be in virtually every central government post-1989 barring a short break, with ideology proving no hurdle.