Ram Vilas Paswan's Mixed Legacy: Switching Allegiances to Stay on Top
On October 8, Union Minister for Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution Ram Vilas Paswan died at the age of 74. This was less than a week after he went through a heart surgery. Tributes started pouring in from all ends of the political spectrum. Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted: “I am saddened beyond words. There is a void in our nation that will perhaps never be filled. Shri Ram Vilas Paswan Ji’s demise is a personal loss. I have lost a friend, valued colleague and someone who was extremely passionate to ensure every poor person leads a life of dignity.”
Paswan was crematedin Janardhan Ghat in Patna on Saturday afternoon in a state funeral. Thousands of people had gathered to attend the final rites of the deceased leader. The Telegraph, a Kolkata-based daily, reported that people had come from Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Punjab, Delhi, Tamil Nadu and Kerala on the occasion. His son Chirag Paswan performed his last rites. In attendance were Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi and leader of the Opposition in the Bihar legislative assembly Tejashwi Yadav.
Ram Vilas Paswan was arguably the second-most recognised Dalit face in Indian politics after Mayawati. A seasoned politician, he was a minister in New Delhi under no less than six different prime ministers. Projected as a leader of the downtrodden, he was one of the staunchest supporters of the policy of reservation of seats in government institutions and educational institutions for other backward classes (OBCs) that had been recommended by the Mandal Commission. An opportunistic politician who never hesitated in shifting allegiances, Paswan leaves behind a mixed legacy as Bihar prepares for assembly elections that are set to begin in late-October.
Paswan’s critics claimed that he had enjoyed the good life based out of Lutyen’s Bungalow Zone in the capital a bit too much and had forsaken the roots from where he had emerged. However, there are others who see him as a voice for the downtrodden whose legacy needs to be remembered.
Amit Kumar, a former head of the Sanskrit department in Patna College told NewsClick that Paswan “leaves behind a legacy of questioning the State, the caste bias of each of those governments and administrations, and of standing up for the Constitution and the cause of Dalits, in Bihar and nationally.” He said that in 1977 after the Emergency period imposed by Indira Gandhi, Paswan lambasted a government report which refused to see the massacre of 11 Dalit men in Belchi village in Patna district as a caste war between landless Dalits and upper caste landowning Mahatos who have licensed weapons in their homes.
He further stated: “The Ram Vilas Paswan I knew was not just a weathervane. We had met at a gathering of the Dalit Student Federation, of which I am a former president, in 2002. Since 1977 he has aggressively spoken for the downtrodden. What he has done to safeguard the Constitutional guarantees of the Dalits is the reason why he could rally together more Dalit (and) Adivasi Members of Parliament to raise collective demands than any other leader.”
Veteran journalist, columnist and political commentator Neerja Chowdhury in an op-ed article for The Indian Express described Paswan as a “convinced proponent of Mandal and social justice.” She wrote: “He spoke about it long before (Vishwanath Pratap) Singh, or Sharad Yadav or others got around to it. But he was not its beneficiary in Bihar. That space was taken over by Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar.”
In an article on the portal Madras Courier, writer Karthik Venkatesh argued that labelling Paswan an “unprincipled opportunist which is really the crux of the ‘weather scientist’ tag without even a cursory attempt to understand his context is beyond unfair.” He added: “It smacks of minds being made up on the basis of his… caste identity!”
Paswan used to be derogatorily described as a “weather scientist” by his political opponents since on many occasions the alliances that he became part of ended up forming governments in New Delhi.
This will be the first assembly election in five decades in Bihar in which Paswan will not be campaigning. His son Chirag Paswan has a huge responsibility on his shoulders. It has been announced that the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) would go it alone in the elections but not put up its candidates against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The LJP would, however, oppose each and every candidate put up by the BJP’s coalition partner in the state, the Janata Dal (United) led by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. The LJP’s national general secretary Abdul Khaliq told journalists: “At the national level and in the Lok Sabha elections, the Lok Janshakti Party shares a strong alliance with Bharatiya Janata Party.”
Many believe this move is going to help the BJP and Chirag Paswan has ambitions as a future challenger to Nitish. The BJP claims Nitish remains its chief ministerial candidate, although he himself isn’t exactly overjoyed by the LJP’s move (with or without the tacit support of some important leaders in the BJP, as many believe).
In this crucial election, Chirag will not be able to rely on his father who has been an important and familiar face to the people of Bihar over half a century. Will Chirag Paswan get “sympathy votes” after the death of Ram Vilas Paswan? A JD(U) leader was quoted as having said on condition of anonymity: “(A) sympathy wave occurs mainly if a person has died of unnatural causes or if it has been untimely. Chirag may get a few more votes in the name of Ram Vilas, but there would be no sympathy wave.”
He added: “Chirag’s earlier decision to influence his father to join the NDA ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha polls paid rich dividends. However, in a new gambit, he has taken on Nitish. The coming months are going to be make or break for him as Nitish is a hard nut and a veteran politician. Ram Vilas’s departure at this juncture has taken away a vast reservoir of experience and political acumen from which Chirag could have benefited.”
Entering Politics With A Bang
Ram Vilas Paswan entered the Bihar state legislative assembly when he was in his early twenties as an MLA representing the now-defunct Samyukta Socialist Party (SSP), a political party which had come into being after many splits in the Congress after the 1967 general elections and state elections. The SSP, headed by George Fernandes would disband a few years later. Paswan would go on to become the general secretary of the Lok Dal in 1974.
Paswan was elected to the Lok Sabha for the first time in the March 1977 elections after Emergency rule. He won as a candidate of the Janata Party from the Hajipur constituency in Bihar by a margin of 4.24 lakh votes that was a record at that time. He lost the elections from the same constituency in 1984 but then went on to break his own record victory margin in 1989, this time, by 5.05 lakh votes. He again lost the Lok Sabha elections from Hajipur in 2009.
Paswan’s support as a Dalit leader was not just confined to Bihar but in other parts of the Hindi heartland as well. In 1988, he became the general secretary of the newly-formed Janata Dal and the secretary of the National Front coalition, which included the Janata Dal, Left parties and other regional parties. And at the young age of 43, Paswan became the Union Labour Minister after V P Singh came to power in December 1989.
While leaders such as Nitish and Fernandes had left the Janata Dal in 1994 to form the Samata Party, Paswan and Sharad Yadav were among those who stayed on. Lalu Prasad Yadav split the Janata Dal in 1997 and formed the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD).
In the 1998 Lok Sabha elections, Paswan was the only candidate from the Janata Dal who won a seat in Parliament. When the vote of confidence took place in April 1999 after the All India Anna Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam had withdrawn support to the second Atal Behari Vajpayee government, he had lashed out against the “communal” BJP and voted against the party.
However, barely six months later, the Janata Dal led by Paswan and Sharad Yadav joined the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the BJP. Paswan argued then that his alliance with the saffron party was not opportunistic but based on the principle of fighting corruption and “jungle raj” in Bihar––a phrase used to describe the reign of Lalu Yadav and his wife Rabri Devi, when lawlessness was said to be rampant in the state.
The NDA won as many as 41 of the 54 seats from Bihar in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections. The Samata Party and the Janata Dal had fought under the common symbol of the Janata Dal (United) and together won 18 seats. Paswan was rewarded by being made the Telecommunications Minister in the Union Cabinet in the Vajpayee government.
As Telecom Minister, Paswan lost much of his earlier image as a dynamic leader. Instead, he came to be seen as a man more interested in doling out favours to cronies by setting up various official bodies to accommodate them. Speculation also started mounting about whether it was just a coincidence that some of his policy decisions as Minister suited the business interests of powerful industrial houses.
In 2000, he broke from the Janata Dal to form the LJP. Paswan was ultimately relieved of the Telecom portfolio in September 2001 in the face of mounting criticism of his decisions. He was assigned the Coal and Mines portfolio, which was perceived as a “demotion” of sorts.
Following the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat, Paswan and some other allies of the BJP in the NDA asked for the resignation of Narendra Modi from the post of Chief Minster. He quit the coalition since the BJP refused to remove Modi.
He then joined the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in 2004 and was given the post of Cabinet Minister for Chemicals and Fertilisers in the Manmohan Singh government. Under his leadership, the much talked about Jan Aushadhi scheme was launched in April 2008, under which stores sell generic medicines that are supposed to be of the same quality as branded ones but priced relatively lower and hence, more affordable. The programme was relaunched as the Pradhan Mantri Bharatiya Janaushadhi Pariyojana by the Modi government in 2015.
During the February 2005 Bihar assembly elections, the LJP won 29 seats. With both the RJD and the alliance of BJP and JD(U) not having enough numbers to stake claim to the throne at Patna or Pataliputra, Paswan had the chance of becoming the kingmaker. According to an India Today article published in 2005, he had at that time said: “I will join hands neither with the communal BJP nor with the corrupt and casteist RJD. I will neither take their support nor extend my support to either of them.”
The report added that the JD(U)-BJP combine had offered to back him. But he refused.
Eventually, not a single party was able to claim a majority. The Bihar assembly was dissolved and re-elections were held in October. In an interview with the portal rediff.com after the Bihar assembly was dissolved, Paswan had said: “... I wanted to form the government in Patna with a Muslim as chief minister. I would not have a problem if that Muslim belonged to the RJD or Congress or even Tariq Anwar of the Nationalist Congress Party...But the RJD was rigid and stuck to Rabri Devi (Lalu Prasad Yadav’s wife). The other side started horse-trading. In this situation the central government accepted the recommendations of Bihar Governor Buta Singh.”
Despite being highly critical of Lalu Yadav in the 2005 Bihar elections, he again joined hands with the RJD in early-2009. He also got an entry into the Rajya Sabha in June 2010 on an RJD-LJP alliance ticket. A day after getting elected to the upper house of Parliament, he told journalists: “We know that Congress is averse to an alliance with RJD... But we have made it clear that our alliance with RJD will remain intact.”
He did not part ways with RJD in the 2010 Bihar assembly elections. However, the JD(U)-BJP alliance won 206 seats in the 243 seat assembly, embarrassing both Lalu Yadav and Paswan himself––so much, for him being the proverbial weathervane.
In February 2014, he resigned from his Rajya Sabha seat two years before the end of his six-year term, left the UPA and joined the NDA. After switching allegiance, he famously remarked: “As far as Modiji is concerned, LJP is now a part of the NDA and the NDA has already declared Modi as its Prime Ministerial candidate.”
The consequences became apparent soon thereafter. Paswan regained his Hajipur Lok Sabha constituency and the LJP won six seats in Bihar in the general elections; the NDA won a total of 31 out of the 40 seats Lok Sabha seats in the state. Paswan was inducted into the Modi government’s Cabinet as Minister for Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution in May 2014, and he continued holding the post after Modi returned to power in May 2019. In the last months of his tenure, after the March 24 lockdown, he was criticised because his ministry was supposedly doing enough to feed migrant workers.
Given the fact that he was unwell, it is not clear the extent to which Ram Vilas Paswan supported his son Chirag’s decision that while the LJP would remain a part of the NDA in Delhi and would not field candidates against the BJP in the upcoming Bihar assembly elections, it would oppose each candidate of the JD(U). With the passing away of Paswan, there is at present only one non-BJP minister in Modi’s council of ministers.
Paswan Family Politics
Indian electoral politics has often been synonymous with families or dynasties. Paswan too gave a platform to various members of his family. Before his son Chirag entered politics, his younger brother Ram Chandra Paswan had been elected four times as a Lok Sabha MP from Samastipur in Bihar. He won the seat in 1999, 2004, 2014 and 2019. Ram Chandra Paswan died after a brief illness in July 2019. When the bypoll for the vacant seat took place, it was won by Ram Chandra Paswan’s son Prince Raj on an LJP ticket.
Chirag, now 37, is the son of Ram Vilas Paswan and his second wife Reena Sharma Paswan. He became a Lok Sabha MP from Jamui in 2014 and retained the seat in the 2019 general elections. Chirag is currently the LJP chief.
During the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, it was disclosed by Ram Vilas Paswan to the Election Commission of India that he had divorced his first wife in 1981. He had married his first wife Raj Kumari in 1960 when both were teenagers. Ram Vilas had two daughters with Raj Kumari, Asha and Usha. Asha is married to RJD politician Anil Kumar Sadhu. Both were not allowed to enter Patna airport when Ram Vilas Paswan’s body was flown in on Friday because their names were reportedly not in the list submitted to the district administration.
The bad blood amongst his family members has spilled over into the political arena. In the 2015 Bihar assembly elections, Sadhu made headlines by publicly weeping after being denied a ticket by the LJP. He joined the RJD in March 2018.
In January 2019, Ram Vilas Paswan had reportedly said that an angootha chhaap––one who uses a thumb impression instead of a signature––had become the chief minister of a state, a dig apparently aimed at Lalu’s wife Rabri Devi. Paswan’s daughter Asha, along with several other women, had staged a protest against these comments by her father and urged him to “withdraw his statement.”
Paswan’s opportunistic politics has always evoked mixed reactions. At one level, he was seen as a leader from a marginalised community who made it big in Indian politics and represented the oppressed sections of Indian society till the very end. In 2016, he had argued in favour of job reservations in the private sector for those belonging to the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and OBCs.
However, his politics over the last five decades showed how he had no qualms about changing his ideological stance if it meant securing a position of power for himself in the central government. From being adamant about having a Muslim chief minister 15 years ago in Bihar to remaining in an alliance with the BJP which has been accused of whipping up an anti-Muslim hysteria in the country for the last six years, Ram Vilas Paswan demonstrated that in Indian politics one needs to keep changing one’s values to remain at the top.
The writers are independent journalists.