Ram Vilas Paswan Dies: Much More to Him Than ‘Weathercock’ Label

His electoral career spanned over 50 years and he became minister under every PM since 1996.

4 min read

Video Editors: Vivek Gupta, Puneet Bhatia

“Political survivor” or “weathercock of Indian politics” are some of the labels that are frequently attached to the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) founder Ram Vilas Paswan, due to the fact that he has been part of all Union governments, except one in the last 24 years.

Union Minister for Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution Ram Vilas Paswan died in New Delhi on Thursday, 8 October, at the age of 74. He had been hospitalised due to multiple organ failure.

Sharing a picture of his younger self with his father, Chirag Paswan tweeted: “Papa, you are not there in this world any more. But I know wherever you are, you’ll always be there with me.”

His electoral career spanned over 50 years and he became minister under every PM since 1996.

Electoral Success

  • Born in a Dalit family in Bihar's Khagaria district in 1946, Paswan went on to do his higher studies in law and arts and joined politics in the late ’60s.
  • Paswan had an immensely successful electoral career, spanning over five decades. He won his first election, as a Samyukta Socialist Party candidate, from the Alauli Asssebly constituency in 1969.
  • When he was less than 30-years-old, Paswan became the general secretary of the Lok Dal in 1974, and grew close to prominent socialist leaders like Karpoori Thakur and Raj Narain.
  • He took part in the anti-Emergency movement in Bihar and had to spend much of the Emergency period in jail.
  • He contested the 1977 Lok Sabha elections from Hajipur and won with the highest margin of 4.24 lakh votes.
  • He once again established the record for the highest margin in the 1989 elections, winning by 5.04 lakh votes.
  • The Hajipur seat became synonymous with his name, electing him eight times in all.

Minister in Several Governments

In the mid ’90s, the Janata Dal considered projecting him as its prime ministerial face. Although he didn't make it to the top job, Paswan has held several important ministries.

He was Minister for Labour in the VP Singh government in 1989, and railways minister in the United Front government between 1996 and 1998. Under Atal Bihari Vajpayee's prime ministership, Paswan was the first to became minister for communications and then coal. Under the first Manmohan Singh government from 2004 to 2009, Paswan was made Minister for Chemicals and Fertilisers.

The phase between 2009 and 2014 was not favourable for Paswan, as his party failed to win any seats in the Lok Sabha, and he lost from his bastion Hajipur.

However, he was part of the winning BJP-led NDA in 2014 and became Minister for Food Processing and Consumer Affairs under PM Narendra Modi, a post he held till his death.


Political Survivor

A lot has been spoken about the stature of the leader but one incident that doesn’t get talked about enough is that he was one of the few politicians whose house was attacked in the 1984 pogrom. His entire house was burnt down, and the Sikh man who had taken shelter there was killed, too. Paswan’s papers, furniture and the cars parked outside were also destroyed.

The key factor for Paswan’s survival was his ability to make friends across the political spectrum and use his assured support base of 6-8 percent votes in Bihar to gain greater leverage and power at the Centre. He also displayed a great deal of ideological flexibility, having joined hands with the BJP, the Congress and Third Front at different points of time.

From 1996 to 2020, Paswan has been a minister in every government, except UPA's second term – a fact that shows his excellent survival skills as a politician.

Despite changing parties a number of times, he had been successful, but within the broader socialist/Janata framework until establishing his own outfit – the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) – in 2000.

After resigning from the Vajpayee government in 2002, ostensibly in protest against the 2002 communal violence in Gujarat under Narendra Modi's chief ministership, few would have expected that he would be supporting Modi for PM 12 years later.

Bihar Polls and LJP's Future

Since 2014, Paswan had been conceding a great deal of political space to his son Chirag Paswan, whom he has been grooming as his successor. While Paswan was in two minds about joining the NDA, it was Chirag's push that finally made him support Modi.

His death comes at a critical juncture for the party. Under Chirag, the LJP has undertaken a bold move of not contesting the upcoming Bihar Assembly elections as part of the NDA under Nitish Kumar's leadership. While supporting BJP in most of the seats, the LJP will be putting up candidates against Kumar's JD(U).

It remains to be seen whether Chirag has inherited Paswan’s survival skills. A few differences between the father and son’s approach are quite visible.

Firstly, Chirag appears to be much more embedded in the pro-BJP camp than his father. And secondly, Chirag appears to be more ambitious than Paswan, regarding the battle for political power in Bihar.

While the father appeared to be content in using his base in Bihar to get more influence at the Centre, Chirag seems to be having ambitions in Patna as well.

However, given that there are much bigger players than the LJP in Bihar, Chirag may move to his father’s approach eventually. The upcoming elections will be his first test, and needless to say, he is likely to miss his father’s political acumen.

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