Could Ram Vilas Paswan Still Be Critical to BJP’s Bihar Gameplan?
Late Union minister and LJP founder Ram Vilas Paswan managed to punch above his weight during his lifetime.
Late Union minister and Lok Janshakti Party founder Ram Vilas Paswan managed to punch above his weight during his lifetime. He never realised his ambition to be a pan-Indian Dalit leader but landed on the winning side anyway in almost every election since 1989, earning himself a ministerial berth from six prime ministers of different political hues.
His death, with the Bihar Assembly elections around the corner, may well reaffirm the importance of being Ram Vilas Paswan – with the first signal coming from Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself.
Critical Element in BJP’s Strategy for Bihar
In an unusually long tweet, filled with effusive praise for the late minister, Modi described Paswan’s demise as “a personal loss’’ and said he leaves a void “that will perhaps never be filled.”
The irony was not lost on those who recall that Paswan walked out of the first NDA government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, as a mark of protest against the 2002 communal violence in Gujarat, when Modi was chief minister.
They say Modi never forgives a slight. But, at the moment, like Arjuna of Mahabharata fame, the PM has his sights firmly fixed on winning Bihar and appointing the state’s first BJP chief minister.
His gushing tributes for his late minister suggest that Paswan, even in death, will be a critical element in the BJP’s strategy.
The BJP is playing a deadly game in Bihar. Officially, it is fighting the election in alliance with Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) but unofficially, it seems to have a secret understanding with the party that Paswan founded, the LJP, to undercut Nitish.
The Younger Paswan’s Ambitions
Paswan’s heir and now LJP chief, Chirag, has made no secret of his desire to replace Nitish and JD(U) as the BJP’s partner in the state. He is fielding candidates in all the seats the JD(U) is contesting, in the hopes of whittling down Nitish’s numbers and robbing him of the CM’s post. Not surprisingly, many of his nominees are those who have crossed over from the BJP.
The most significant of these is Rajendra Singh, a long-time loyal RSS worker. Some years ago, he was even being touted as a possible chief minister, should the BJP win in Bihar.
Singh has been with the RSS for more than 30 years and the buzz in the state is that he could not have joined the LJP without a nod from the Sangh.
Although the LJP hasn’t been a significant player in successive governments in Bihar, largely because it doesn’t win enough seats to make a difference, the party has a faithful following among Paswan Dalits, who comprise approximately 7-8 percent of the state’s population.
Paswan’s Space in Bihar Politics
The Paswans are present in large numbers in the Hajipur belt, which is the family stronghold, but they are also spread across Bihar and add crucial percentage points in tight contests.
Over the years, Paswan has established himself as their leader and voice on the national stage, through his firebrand speeches and pro-Dalit politics – like fighting for the Bharat Ratna award for Bhimrao Ambedkar and pushing for the passage of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.
Paswan worked his way up the ladder through sheer grit, determination and a formidable talent for spotting the winner. There will undoubtedly be a sympathy wave for him among his constituents, which both the BJP and LJP will hope to capitalise on.
Modi was the first off the mark, with a lavish eulogy that is quite uncharacteristic of him. It shows he understands the small but important space Paswan occupies in Bihar’s politics.
Chirag is bound to follow suit once the funeral formalities are over and he is back in the thick of the campaign.
What of the JD(U) Now?
The party that finds itself in a bind after Paswan’s demise is the JD(U). Nitish and his nominees will have to tread carefully. While Chirag will keep up his tirade against the CM for misgovernance and unkept promises, Nitish will have to choose his words while fending off these attacks.
He cannot criticise Paswan because it’s not done to speak ill of the dead. But, can he afford to lambast the bereaved son of a popular Dalit leader of the state?
It’s a difficult choice and requires some deft tightrope walking by the JD(U). For Nitish, it must be galling. A shrewd practitioner of realpolitik himself, he must be aware that both the BJP and LJP will try and derive as much advantage as possible from his plight.
The Bihar election promises to be a messy affair and may not throw up a clear result. The real game is likely to begin only after the polls as political parties scramble to form the next government through unlikely permutations and combinations.
Paswan has left behind a rich legacy for son Chirag to build upon. Chirag has already shown himself to be a worthy successor by maneuvering to make the LJP more relevant than it deserves.
Like his father, he too has managed to punch above his weight. But his real test comes now, to win as many seats as possible to consolidate his gains and carve a future for his party after his father has gone.
(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. She tweets @AratiJ. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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