In 1969, a tall and lanky Dalit political activist, in his early 20s, entered the Bihar legislative assembly as a legislator of the Samyukta Socialist Party.
It was a time of political ferment. The hegemony of the Congress had been eroded, for the first time, in state elections in 1967, and alternative ruling coalitions — usually led by socialists — had taken over many state capitals in north India. But this political ferment itself was a result of social churn. The first cracks in upper caste dominance were visible. Backward communities were making their presence felt in democratic politics. Social justice for the marginalised was becoming a central political plank. It was in this milieu that the young Dalit man from north Bihar threw in his lot with socialists.
On Thursday, 51 years after his entry into public life as an elected representative, the young activist, who went on to become one of India’s most senior politicians and, arguably, the most senior Dalit leader in the country, passed on.
In life and death, Ram Vilas Paswan represented the possibilities and limitations of the politics of social justice in India. He symbolised the pathway that democratic electoral politics offered to marginalised communities to demand their space and challenge the hierarchies present in the social order. But he also symbolised the pragmatism — and what critics would call the opportunism — that often marks high politics in India.
It was in how Paswan navigated the twin streams of the politics of justice and the politics of power, while remaining eternally relevant, that made him a true survivor of Indian politics.
To understand what Ram Vilas Paswan meant for Dalit politics — much before Mayawati became its face and far surpassed Paswan’s political stature in the community — it is important to understand the social context in which he came from.
In Bihar’s deeply stratified society, he entered the political realm not as a beneficiary of patronage or largesse but by unapologetically asserting his identity. As he said in an interview to HT two years ago, while his father’s generation would get slapped and abused and could do nothing about it, his generation would resist — this resistance did not bring outright change, but it created an opening.
Resistance for Paswan was simple — a space in the mainstream political structure. Power, he believed, was key to justice. And it helped that he had an instinctive smell for power, earning him the label of “mausam vaigyanik”, or weather scientist, in recent decades for his ability to read the political winds and shift strategies accordingly.
To achieve this, Paswan was committed to the constitutional and electoral route. After opposing the Emergency, in 1977, he entered the Lok Sabha for the first time — with a record margin from Hajipur. He was to return to the Lower House seven more times, and shifted just recently to the upper house. And in this period, he would ally with every political stream in India.
He was a minister in the VP Singh government, and emerged as a key champion of the implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations. He was a minister in United Front governments in the mid-1990s, arguing for the need for a Third Front, only to be disdainful of it in later years.
He was a minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government on the grounds that India needed stability before he resigned, in 2002, citing the Gujarat riots. He was a minister in the Manmohan Singh government till 2009, on the grounds of wanting to defeat communal forces. And he was a minister for the past six years in the Narendra Modi government, on the plank of “sabka saath, sabka vikas”, in what can be termed as a supremely ironical twist given why he had resigned from the Vajpayee government. But he was able to pull off all these shifts, almost seamlessly and without controversy, because he was clear-headed about what he wanted. He was ambitious and wanted to expand his power and resource base; this was possible through political authority; and this also helped his political constituency get benefits.
Paswan was careful to keep this constituency intact — be it the broader Hajipur belt in north Bihar geographically or Paswans socially. And so he focused on getting projects to his region, or employment for members of his community, or opposing atrocities when it became an emotive issue for Dalits. This base was not enough to win him Bihar’s chief ministership or become a pan-India Dalit leader. But it was enough to make him a key swing force in Bihar, with a loyal vote base, useful for other larger parties, which in turn allowed him to then bargain for a slice of power. In his final years, Paswan had only ambition — to establish his son, Chirag, as not just his political successor but as a leader meant to achieve even greater things than he did. He relentlessly promoted his son, be it through political introductions across the spectrum (he had friends in every party), encouraging media coverage (he was an accessible minister, giving interviews as well as off the record insights), and most recently, handing over the responsibility of the Bihar election.
But he also understood that Dalit politics itself was changing. In the same interview quoted above, where he spoke about the difference between his father’s generation and his,Paswan said: “The Chirag Paswan generation is not ready to accept it (slaps and abuses). People ask, why is there a protest on smaller issues? It’s because young Dalits want a life of respect.” At a time when the Hathras protests have shaken the BJP, his word of advice to his bigger ally on how to handle Dalit protests may seem apt too: “Work without antagonising anyone. There is lava inside — when it comes out slowly, the volcano doesn’t erupt; but if you suppress it, then it becomes an active volcano.” It was because of this recognition that Paswan persuaded the Modi government in its first term to push back against the Supreme Court verdict which was seen as diluting the atrocities act or asking it to publicise the benefits Dalits received with welfare schemes.
Paswan died just as his party, the Lok Janashakti Party, has decided to contest the Bihar elections separately — in opposition to Nitish Kumar, who is the face of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the state, while remaining a part of the same alliance at the centre. While his death is sure to have an impact on Bihar elections, what many would see as the dualism of the LJP at the moment — of enjoying power while being the Opposition — is perhaps symbolic of the dualism of Paswan himself, of espousing the politics of justice while being enmeshed in the politics of power.
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