Ram Vilas Paswan: Weathervane who worked for Dalits, friends across divide

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Written by Coomi Kapoor | New Delhi | October 9, 2020 4:35:50 am

On Thursday evening, Ram Vilas Paswan breathed his last in a Delhi hospital.

Ram Vilas Paswan’s fellow Bihar politician Lalu Prasad Yadav once angrily called him a Mausam Vaigyanik (weathervane) since Paswan had the uncanny knack of sniffing out the winning side in politics.

Because of his shrewd political judgment, Paswan had an unmatched record of being a central minister in practically every government from 1989 to 2020, with only occasional periods of being out of power.

He served as a minister in the governments of V P Singh, H D Deve Gowda, I K Gujral, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi. The portfolios he held included Railways, Labour and Welfare, Food. The 74-year-old was Union Minister of Consumer Affairs, Food & Public Distribution at the time of his death.

His detractors sometimes said Paswan punched much above his weight in New Delhi, simply because he was a convenient senior Dalit leader for a party like the BJP to hold up as a showpiece. They said he was not a mass leader in terms of vote-pulling ability. His party, Lok Janshakti Party, usually garnered only around 6.5 per cent of the vote in his home state though it could, on occasion, tip the balance.

But this is a facile underestimation of a very shrewd politician whose mastery of realpolitik is reflected in his long survival in a cut-throat game. He was the best known Dalit politician from Bihar after Jagjivan Ram.

Even as Paswan lay in a hospital in New Delhi, his young son Chirag, who once tried to make a name in Bollywood but failed, kept his father’s tradition of ensuring that the LJP remains relevant in the forthcoming Bihar assembly polls.

Chirag has been regularly criticising Nitish Kumar, much to the chagrin of the Bihar Chief Minister who is furious that the BJP has made little effort to rein in its ally. In fact, in a curious state of affairs permitted by the BJP leadership, the LJP remains an ally of the government at the Centre while its candidates contest against the JD(U) at the state level in the assembly polls.

Paswan’s strength lay partly in his very pleasant, accommodating and helpful nature. If he could oblige a fellow politician, even if the person were from the opposing side, or assist a journalist in trouble, he would go out of his way to help. His doors were always open and he never stood on ceremony.

As a minister in Vajpayee’s government, Paswan still kept very cordial relations with neighbour Sonia Gandhi who lived down the road in New Delhi. When he quit the Vajpayee’s government in 2002 over the Gujarat communal riots, Gandhi was only too happy to welcome him into the UPA fold.

Similarly, Narendra Modi did not seem to hold it against Paswan that he left the NDA ostensibly because of the Gujarat government’s failure to protect minorities. When he returned to the NDA fold, Paswan was rewarded by being made a minister in the Modi I and Modi II governments.

As a minister, Paswan’s most memorable achievement was getting the Mandal Commission report implemented in 1990 during the term of the short-lived V P Singh government. Paswan was then Minister of Welfare and was among the first to insist firmly that there would be early implementation of reservations on the lines suggested by the Mandal Commission, despite nationwide protests from upper caste youth opposed to the reservation policy.

Although Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav, his rivals in his home state, have dominated Bihar politics for the last five decades, Paswan in fact entered politics much before them.

He came from a poor Dalit family but worked his way up to complete MA and LLB. In 1969, he was elected to the Bihar assembly from the Samyukta Socialist Party (SSP). He was imprisoned during the Emergency and, when it was lifted in 1977, he joined the Janata Party.

He won from his home seat Hajipur with the largest margin at that time, making a name for himself in the Guinness Book of Records. He was to win from this reserved constituency eight times. Last year, for the first time, he let his brother contest from Hajipur, while he was elected to Rajya Sabha in a deal worked out with the BJP.

Of the six LJP MPs in the current Lok Sabha, two are Paswan’s brothers and another is son Chirag. In fact, Paswan wanted Modi to make Chirag a minister, but the Prime Minister insisted on retaining the senior Paswan in his cabinet, and not the son.

Always concerned about the Scheduled Castes, Paswan pushed schemes for their welfare and the uplift of the downtrodden.

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