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Ram Vilas Paswan’s return to the NDA fold is more than just another poll-eve gamble. He was the Union minister who walked out of the Vajpayee-led government in 2002, pointing to the violence in Gujarat. And that’s not the Dalit leader’s only claim to the halo of secular warrior. In the wake of the hung verdict in the first of the two 2005 assembly elections in Bihar, Paswan, who had the numbers to play kingmaker, famously insisted that he would lend his weight only to the formation that would make a Muslim chief minister. His willingness now to join hands with the Narendra Modi-led BJP, breaking away from the secular alliance in-the-making with the RJD and Congress in Bihar, therefore, sends out some interesting signals.
Paswan’s move is the first prominent pointer to the increasing fluidity and complexity of an electoral field in which smaller players, even those that describe themselves as secular, may well have more options than were previously calculated: the Congress-led alliance, the Third Front, and also the BJP-led alliance. The political untouchability that was once again threatening to settle over the BJP ever since Modi became its supreme leader stands pierced. In fact, even though his is only a small and besieged party in Bihar, all three formations on the national stage are touched by the Paswan manoeuvre. For the BJP, the LJP leader’s stepping over the communal-secular faultline also bolsters its pro-backward credentials. In the run-up to the general elections, the party has been hectically wooing and inducting Dalit and backward caste leaders in UP and Bihar. For the Congress, the loss of Paswan is more resonant than his party’s electoral weight, or lack of it, might suggest: in 2004, it was Paswan whom Sonia Gandhi had called on to send out that first message that the Congress was open to coalition-making. For the Third Front, which has positioned itself as the homing ground of non-Congress and anti-BJP parties, the LJP’s crossover is a warning flare of splintering in the secular camp.
Paswan’s return to the NDA fold drives home the permeability of political-ideological faultlines in a polity with as many moving parts as ours. Ahead of a crucial election, players and observers seek to freeze the frame at their own peril.