When Ram Vilas Paswan came to Patna after winning his first election from Alauli (Khagaria) in 1969 as a Samyukta Socialist Party candidate, he did not know what his leader Karpoori Thakur looked like. Thakur would grow to respect Paswan as much as the young MLA admired the man who as CM in 1977 ushered in social and political change by enforcing reservations.
Paswan, who would go on to set a Guinness Record for the largest ever victory margin, had made political waves in that very first election – defeating Congress veteran Misri Sada, while campaigning on a bicycle he had bought with some of the money his father Jamun Das gave him to buy a health drink to tone up his lanky stature.
Paswan, who went on to form the Lok Janshakti Party in 2000, was a Union minister at the time of his death at the age of 74 following illness. The biggest Dalit leader of Bihar after Jagjivan Ram, his other claim to fame was this uncanny ability to pick the winning side, of whatever hue, and retain a place in the Union Cabinet.
Back in 1990, Paswan once told this reporter, he had come close to becoming the Bihar CM. He said he was the first choice of V P Singh who had become the Prime Minister defeating Rajiv Gandhi, but Singh ultimately chose another Dalit leader, Ram Sundar Das. Finally, it would be Paswan’s junior Lalu Prasad who would become the CM for the first time, stealing a march on him as the tallest leader in the state. Paswan would hold the consolation of trouncing Das almost all the half-a-dozen times they faced each other in elections.
In 2005, Paswan got another shot at CMship when the LJP got 29 seats and held keys to government formation in a hung House. He would claim to have also been discussed as a possible PM after H D Deve Gowda resigned in April 1997. “It was an outside chance but still a huge honour for a boy from a non-descript village of Khagaria,” he would say.
While not a direct product of the 1974-75 JP Movement, unlike other Bihar leaders such as Lalu, Nitish Kumar and Sushil Kumar Modi, he was close to Jayaprakash Narayan. In the 1977 Lok Sabha elections, where Indira Gandhi was ousted as a byproduct of the JP Movement, Paswan called himself “a candidate of JP” in the Hajipur seat. He would go on to represent the constituency several times. When unable to campaign in 2019 due to illness, he delivered an impassioned speech. The saying went that Hajipur was famous for two things — its bananas and Ram Vilas Paswan.
An affable leader known to court friendships and for his large heart, at a time when politics has grown bitter and visceral, Paswan was never close to Lalu or Nitish, despite sharing a socialist background, as they fought for the same space at the Centre. Another of his claims was that he was denied the Railway Ministry at the last moment in 2004 as the UPA had committed it to Lalu Prasad.
When he rejoined the NDA in 2014, 10 years after parting with it over the 2002 Gujarat riots, he had told The Indian Express he had no choice as the alliance had started giving more preference to Nitish. And while Paswan liked being in the limelight at the Centre, he ensured his hold in the state, remaining the third angle of Bihar politics after Lalu and Nitish. His LJP continues to command at least 5-7% of the vote share, with Paswan virtually its only bankable name.
Paswan had grown to favour a long overcoat in the winters, but Bihar will remember him as a leader rooted to his origins. The state’s politics will be poorer for losing the last of the Dalit socialists the country has known.
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