Ram Vilas Paswan’s True Legacy? Changing Dominant Caste Politics

Thanks to the politics of leaders like Paswan, dominant caste rule in Bihar is increasingly being challenged.

4 min read

A 2016 tweet from the man himself – Ram Vilas Paswan – gives a glimpse of why he did what he eventually did.

When faced with a situation to choose between serving as a legislator in the Bihar assembly and joining the state police as deputy superintendent (DSP), one of Ram Vilas Paswan’s friends is said to have asked him to opt either to be the ‘government’ or ‘servant’. That was 51 years ago.

By opting for a career in politics, Ram Vilas Paswan, union minister with six different prime ministers in the last 21 of the 31 years, preferred to be the sarkaar (government) rather than a sevak (servant).

While going through his five decade-old political career, we get the impression that all these years he remained true to the promise he made to himself quite early on in his life.

What would have helped was his ability to win elections in most years beginning 1969. He won the Lok Sabha elections nine times and entered the Bihar state assembly while still in his early 20s. Each election victory would perhaps reinforce his belief that he was to remain the sarkaar till his last breath. Did he live his belief?


For Paswan, It Was ‘Parivarvaad’ Over ‘Samajvaad’

Political pundits would examine his legacy on two counts:

  • Being one of the tallest Dalit leaders of his times, what did he do to further the cause of empowerment of the oppressed groups?
  • Did he do justice to the socialist ideology he always said he pursued?

(They won’t be very generous with their assessment on either of these points.)

They would be extremely critical of the fact that he shifted ideological positions just to remain in power.

They would highlight his inconsistencies – from being a possible successor of the VP Singh legacy of backward class empowerment to being one of the architects of the Third Front experiment (first and only non-Congress, non-BJP experiment between 1996 to 1998) and then innings with the BJP-led, Congress-led and the BJP-led again governments.

In between, he quit the Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime, protesting against the 2002 Gujarat riots. And, there were years in Bihar politics when he would flaunt his precondition of having a Muslim chief ministerial candidate to win his support for any coalition in the assembly elections.

The pundits would also point out that, like most socialists such as ideologue Ram Manohar Lohia, Paswan’s politics got reduced to the politics of the caste he belonged to.

And despite the initial promise of mounting an effective coalition of oppressed castes against the privileged ones, Paswan, like many of his illustrious contemporaries, chose to push parivarvaad (dynasty politics) over samajvaad (socialism).

Social Context Of Paswan’s Bihar

The pundits might have had a point or two to make. However, I think any examination of Paswan’s legacy is incomplete without taking into account the context he was born into, and the kind of Bihar he breathed in, in his formative years.

The Bihar of the 1960s was feudal and ruled by the dominant castes. Lohia’s ‘sau mein saath’ (60 out of 100; a slogan given to advocate reservation for the disadvantaged classes) had just begun to catch the attention of the deprived sections.

Leaders like Lalu Prasad Yadav, Nitish Kumar and Ram Vilas Paswan sensed a political opening here to challenge the extremely dominant Congress.

By the time these leaders began to make their mark – and that happened from the late 1980s onwards – we could smell a social change in Bihar; messy in initial years and more or less settled now. We could sense the beginning of the end of dominant caste rule. We could feel that the oppressed sections had begun to realise the power of their votes and were determined to make them count. The politics of the state saw a rapid change, and the layers feeding to and getting sustenance from it had begun to adjust accordingly. It was a change worth cherishing for many sections of society.


Paswan’s Lasting Impact On Bihar Politics

I think it will be hasty to conclude that the era of dominant caste rule in Bihar is over.

However, thanks to the politics of leaders like Paswan, this domination is increasingly getting contested, challenged, and often, contained too. Isn’t that a remarkable feat to accomplish in the life of a state like Bihar?

While growing up in a backward region of Bihar in the 1980s, I still remember having sensed the respect the disadvantaged castes had for my father who happened to be a village sarpanch and former Congress leader.

A decade later, I got to know that my father had sold parts of his ancestral land to the prominent Dalit families of the village. The big change anyone could notice was the kind of respect my father had for the members of the social group he had sold his land too. The admiration now was mutual.

When the dust settles and we get to see beyond the analysis that presents Paswan as the quintessential weather scientist (‘mausam vaigyanik’ or ‘weather scientist’ was the expression used by Lalu Prasad Yadav to describe him as someone who had the knack of predicting the election right, so that he could always end up with the winning coalition), we will get to see the real legacy of Paswan more clearly.

Of course, he could have done much better. But we must have the heart to appreciate what he did.

(The author is an occasional writer and an aspiring entrepreneur. He tweets @Mayankprem. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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