Making sense of the political legacy of Ram Vilas Paswan
A unique strength of Paswan that was talked about in political and journalistic circles was his acute sense of which way the wind was blowing.
On April 30, 1982, the Lok Sabha discussed the Mandal Commission report. The Lok Dal – with a farmer and agrarian-caste constituency – strongly supported reservations for the Other Backward Classes, something that the Commission had recommended.
One leader stood out in the debate. This was Ram Vilas Paswan, who was not from a middle-ranking agrarian caste – the proposed beneficiaries of the Mandal Commission. Rather, he was a Dalit, a Dusadh from Bihar. And he combined the socialist pitch for reservations for the OBCs, of which Ram Manohar Lohia had been the most articulate proponent till the late 1960s, with an Ambedkarite critique of Hinduism.
Christophe Jaffrelot notes in his book India’s Silent Revolution that Paswan argued in the Lower House of Parliament that caste hierarchy was intrinsic to Hinduism, the essence of which was the Manu Smriti.
He, Jaffrelot recalls, was countered by the then Defence Minister R Venkatraman, who said that not Manu Smriti but the Bhagawad Gita, told to Arjun by Lord Krishna, a Yadav, was the essence of Hinduism.
Union minister Ram Vilas Paswan was a Dalit leader with a difference and steered the Parliamentary side of Dalit politics in Bihar for decades.
He cut his teeth in socialist politics, entering politics from the Sanyukta Socialist Party in 1969. The socialists wanted a Dalit face and saw the young man who had cleared the state police service as promising. Paswan remained politically relevant for 50 years, with a career that saw him as a leader of the SSP, the Lok Dal, the Janata Party, the Lok Dal (Karpoori), the Janata Dal and the Lok Janashakti Party, which he founded two decades back.
He combined the socialist discourse of north Indian politics – something that he shared with Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar, the other two regional heavyweights from Bihar – with a touch of Ambedkarism. He proudly called himself a follower of Baba Saheb Bhim Rao Ambedkar and not Mahatma Gandhi decades back in a TV interview.
Unlike neighbouring UP, where the Ambedkar and Lohia streams bifurcated into adversarial BSP and SP politics in the mid-1990s, Paswan in Bihar donned several hats as a Dalit leader, defying easy categorizations and patterns.
After the death of Jagjivan Ram in the mid-1980s, Paswan was the tallest Dalit leader of Bihar, winning with record margins a few times. However, as academic Badri Narayan says, his appeal remained largely within his own caste, the Dusadhs, and he could not reach out well enough across Dalit castes.
“The Chamars (31.3-percent among Bihar Dalits) and Dusadhs (30.9-percent) are close to each other in number in Bihar and have impressive populations. Yet, Paswan remained a Dusadh leader, first and foremost,” Badri Narayan says. The Dalit population as a whole in Bihar stands at 15-percent.
Paswan’s rhetoric would often straddle the Ambedkarite and Lohiate worlds, but he gradually emerged as a conciliatory figure accessible across the political divide rather than a polarising one.
“In the Lalu years in the late 1990s, when caste violence between the upper castes and Dalits, represented by the Ranveer Sena and the Maoist Communist Centre, respectively, peaked, Paswan came across as a bridge across the caste spectrum and tried to be a voice of conciliation,” says political analyst Sajjan Kumar. “His rhetoric may have been Dalit-centric but his praxis became more and more conciliatory. As a politician who mastered the art of the possible, Paswan should be understood more in terms of his actions.”
A keen political observer
A unique strength of Paswan that was talked about in political and journalistic circles was his acute sense of which way the wind was blowing. And as he became more and more accessible across the spectrum, he aimed at access to power – a unique urge of a Dalit politics where representation opens doors to empowerment.
Paswan served as minister under Prime Ministers ranging from VP Singh to Narendra Modi.
He joined the Vajpayee government in 1999, soon after he had been part of the United Front that had seen HD Devegowda becoming Prime Minister to keep the BJP, then seen as a communal party none wished to touch, out. So, from a minister in the United Front government, he made an effortless transition to becoming a minister in the Vajpayee government.
He, however, valued Muslim support and quit the Vajpayee government after the Gujarat riots of 2002. This did not mean the end of the road for Paswan, however. He joined hands with the Congress when it came to power in 2004 and became minister again in the UPA government.
Sensing the rise of Narendra Modi and the impending defeat of the Congress, Paswan was the only regional heavyweight from Bihar who allied with the BJP months before the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. And his acute political sense did not fail him. The BJP swept to power with a clear majority and Paswan became a Union minister yet again.
The last days of Paswan saw tensions between the Janata Dal (United) and the Lok Janashakti Party, leading to the LJP walking out of the NDA in Bihar but not at the Centre. It also decided to take on JD (U) candidates but not field candidates against the BJP, something that many suspected was done to ensure that the BJP wins far more seats than the JD (U), which would put pressure on Nitish Kumar.
This was yet another Paswan twist at a time when his son Chirag Paswan had already become the party’s face. However, Ram Vilas Paswan did not live to see which way the wind blows in Bihar this time.
Many accused Paswan of political opportunism, but most agreed that he was both accessible and a leader with an acute sense of political trends on the ground. He was a unique combination of Lohia and Ambedkar but also showed signs of the kind of integrationist politics Jagjivan Ram was known to pull off for decades.
In short, Paswan was forever an enigmatic political figure not easily boxed into categories. He was a pragmatist; a master of the art of the possible.