“Rashtrapati ka beta ho ya chaprasi ka ho santaan, Birla ya garib ka beta, sabki shiksha ek samaan (Whether it’s the President’s son or the son of a peon, Birla’s son or that of the poor, all should get equal education).”
Ram Vilas Paswan liked to recite these lines, which he had picked up when he started his political career — they were part of a socialist slogan used by the then Samyukta Socialist Party (SSP). And the passion with which he did even 50 years into his public life spoke eloquently about what he deeply believed in ever since his first election win as an MLA from Bihar in 1969.
On Thursday evening, the 74-year-old breathed his last in a Delhi hospital, following cardiac ailments and a kidney shutdown, leaving behind a legacy that spanned two of the biggest churning points of post-Independent politics — Mandal and Dalit. Paswan, in fact, was a Dalit leader long before Dalit empowerment and social justice became an irreversible force in mainstream politics.
From his socialist training of the 1960s to anti-Congressism to quitting a Cabinet position in the A B Vajpayee government over the 2002 Gujarat riots to joining the Congress-led UPA-1, Paswan stepped over several lines to remain politically relevant since the turn of the century.
So much so, that his last assignment was as Union Minister of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was the Chief Minister of Gujarat during the 2002 riots.
His ability to gauge the political wind once made his rival from Bihar, RJD founder Lalu Prasad, describe him as “mausam vigyani” (weather scientist). Yet, there were some instances when he did miss the political current, for instance during the 2005 Bihar elections and the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.
But the fact that he worked with six Prime Ministers – V P Singh, H D Deve Gowda, I K Gujral, A B Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi — spoke of his endurance. From the Third Front to the Congress and to the BJP, he traversed easily through portfolios like Railways, Coal, Communications, and Chemicals and Fertilisers.
And yet, today, it is the imprint of Paswan’s political journey that will be hard to match.
“Shri Ram Vilas Paswan Ji rose in politics through hardwork and determination. As a young leader, he resisted tyranny and the assault on our democracy during the Emergency. He was an outstanding Parliamentarian and Minister, making lasting contributions in several policy areas,” the Prime Minister posted on Twitter.
“I am saddened beyond words. There is a void in our nation that will perhaps never be filled. Shri Ram Vilas Paswan Ji’s demise is a personal loss. I have lost a friend, valued colleague and someone who was extremely passionate to ensure every poor person leads a life of dignity,” he posted.
“He was the voice of the oppressed, and championed the cause of the marginalised,” said President Ram Nath Kovind in a condolence message.
“A towering personality, who stood with the cause of social justice and empowerment of the most marginalised, Shri Paswan will be forever remembered for asserting the cause of social and political equity,” Congress president Sonia Gandhi said.
Hailing from the Paswan community, he turned away from a job in the state police to join politics. Much later, he would often recount how a senior socialist once asked him whether he wanted to become a government servant or be the one to get government servants to work for the people. It was this line, he said, that helped him make up his mind.
Soon, he embarked on a career mostly centred on anti-Congress politics. A product of the JP movement — his death today coincided with the death anniversary of Jayprakash Narayan — he was arrested when Emergency was proclaimed and spent that entire period in jail.
But then, he was elected to the Lok Sabha in 1977 from Hajipur with a then record margin of 4.2 lakh votes and moved to national politics. Although those margins got him the headlines — he set a new record in 1989 with a margin of over 5 lakh votes — it was his stint during the V P Singh government that made him a front-ranking national leader. In all, he was elected to Lok Sabha nine times and Rajya Sabha twice.
Having started as a socialist, Paswan had sensed the impending wave of Dalit politics in the Hindi heartland in the early 1980s itself, when BSP founder Kanshiram had begun moving in that direction.
Paswan would fondly recall how, as Welfare Minister under V P Singh, he worked to ensure that the Bharat Ratna went to Dr B R Ambedkar. That government also rolled out the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. These two decisions have since become the political touchstone for those reaching out to Dalit sentiments and aspirations.
Paswan was also the first off the block to get Prime Minister Modi to take the legislative route to counter the Supreme Court ruling that had, in effect, diluted provisions of the SC/ST Act. By then, Paswan had earned enough goodwill and leverage while being part of a government that, because of its numbers, had appeared immune to political pressure.
After V P Singh, Paswan carried similar weight in the HD Deve Gowda government during which he was Leader of the Lok Sabha as Gowda had taken charge without yet being an MP. The divisions within the Janata Dal, however, forced him to seek his own perch in national politics.
In 2000, he floated the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) to carve his political space in Delhi despite being a relatively smaller force in Bihar. He leveraged his command over a section of the Dalit votes in Bihar to remain sought-after by major alliances at the Centre.
One of his big-ticket announcements in his last assignment was the rollout of ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’ in all states by March-end 2021. The ambitious scheme enables beneficiaries to withdraw their foodgrain quota from any ration shop in the country.
And although he was ill during pre-poll alliance negotiations for the Bihar polls starting October 28, the developments over the last two weeks — the LJP under Chirag exited the NDA in Bihar while remaining in the alliance in Delhi — show that his son has taken up the mantle.
As Paswan’s favourite slogan goes: “Sansopa (SSP) ne bandhi gaanth, pichhda pave sau mein saath; raj-path hai kiske haath, angrezi aur unchi jaat; unchi jaat ka kya pehchan, git-pit boli kare na kaam; angrez yehan se chale gaye, angrezi ko bhi jana hai; rashtrapati ka beta ho ya…. (SSP has taken a pledge; backwards will get their share; power is with those who know English and are upper-caste; one sign of the upper-castes is glib talk, little work; the British have left, it’s time for English to go…).”
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