The death of Ram Vilas Paswan, veteran parliamentarian and Union Minister in governments across the ideological spectrum, has drawn attention to the brand of politics he practised, and the role he played as a Dalit leader in the socialist movement for nearly 50 years.
What made Paswan a unique leader for social and political justice was his belief and practice of coalition politics and the use of state power to fight for the rights of Dalits and other vulnerable communities. His ability to ally seemingly contradictory political forces has led to him being described often as a “political weathervane”: Paswan knew which way national politics was heading and more often than not, allied himself with the winner.
Abdul Khaliq, general secretary of the Lok Janshakti Party (which Paswan founded), takes issue with this description, and clarifies the matter in his article ‘A voice for the dispossessed’: “An oft-repeated and ill-informed criticism of Paswanji is that he was a weather vane who invariably manipulated his way into the alliance that formed the government of the day. Pray, which party in the country has not accommodated conflicting ideologies to wrest power?… Paswanji understood the importance of using political power responsibly and was not shy about seeking it. As one of the foremost leaders of the most oppressed group of citizens, he has used his stints in various governments to protect and advance their interests.”
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Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu echoes this sentiment, arguing that his erstwhile Cabinet colleague saw state power as a means to implement social justice. “Paswan understood the significance of political power in driving change and making a difference. He was determined to play the game according to the rules and work for change from within. Given his knowledge of the harsh social realities and his powers of articulation, Paswan had the option of taking a combative route to strive for change. Instead, the advantage of being proactive by being within the system appealed to him more,” he writes.
The most recent example of this influence that Naidu cites is when Paswan pressured the Narendra Modi government into standing by the SC/ST Atrocities Act.
The other facet of Paswan’s political life that is of note is that as a Lohiaite, he saw building social and political coalitions as a part of his praxis. Khaliq states, for example, that “Muslims have always had a special affinity for Paswanji”. And that “they have not forgotten that in the wake of the Gujarat riots in 2002, he resigned as a minister in protest”.
What becomes clear from the tributes to Ram Vilas Paswan is that he saw Dalit politics not as an attempt to create an electoral bloc to gain bargaining power, but rather politics itself was an instrument of integration, of asserting identity by building bridges and alliances with others whose voice may also be unheard.