Hes the most recognisable face of Dalit politics in Bihar who famously wrote himself into the Guinness Book of World Records in 1989 by winning the Hajipur seat with a margin of 4,70,000 votes. He was credited with the crucial bridging vote in the states fragmented political fray. He has served as Union minister in coalition governments of the Third Front,the NDA and the UPA.
For now,however,as Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party teeters on the brink of legislative extinction in Bihar,the genial survivor of the Lohia-ite tradition appears to be losing his ability to run with the political wind.
In July-end,of the LJPs 3 MLAs and 3 MLCs in the Bihar legislature,the MLCs,all three of them,defected to the ruling JD(U). Of the MLAs,two,Pramod Kumar Singh and Naushad Alam,have written letters to the Speaker announcing their decision to cross to the JD(U). Naushad has since retracted,insists Paswan,claiming he was forced to write the letter; the LJP expelled Singh last week.
It happened silently. I came to know after my MLCs had already left, says Paswan. Only after the media started asking me about them… As recently as on July 14,he remembers,the LJP legislators had all marked their attendance at the partys national executive meet in Delhi.
The 11-year-old LJPs diminution in Bihar 2011 follows its eclipse at the Centre in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections when it drew a blank. The party has two MPs in the Rajya Sabha,including Paswan,who having lost from the Hajipur seat that once hosted his spectacular show of strength,was forced to rely on friend-turned-foe-turned-friend Lalu Yadav to enter the Upper House.
Nitish Kumar is trying to demoralise the Opposition, alleges Paswan. He has so many MLAs,MLCs. What does he lack? Does he want to reduce the Opposition to zero? Beyond the immediate bewilderment and denial,however,there seems to be a recognition that the options have been narrowing for him in a state where the rise of Nitish Kumar has brought about,and been the result of,a change in the grammar of politics. Naavik wahi hota hai jo dhara ke vipreet naav ko chalaye, (he who rows against the current is the true boatman) he admits the uphill challenge.
Paswans loneliness in Bihar comes not very long after he reached the peak of his powers in 2005. After the hung verdict in the first of the two assembly polls that year,the LJPs cache of 29 MLAs was much in demand. Paswan himself figured in every list of chief ministerial probables. At that time,it did seem,he held the keys to Bihar. But I said it should be neither me,nor Nitish,nor Lalu. There should be a Muslim chief minister, he says.
Even earlier,he recalls a moment in the V P Singh cabinet in 1989 when I refused to leave the Centre and go to the state as chief minister. Then again,in 1998,after the days-old Nitish government collapsed in Bihar,Atalji proposed my name (for chief ministership),but I refused.
By all accounts,Paswans slide in Bihar was accelerated with Nitishs own wooing of the Dalit vote. A state appointed commission has renamed all Bihars Dalit subgroups,except the Paswans,as Mahadalits; the new category is beneficiary of an array of targeted schemes and programmes. It could also be Paswan’s cave-in to family rule two brothers and two sons-in-law contested and lost in the last Assembly polls.
Ironically,for someone who is seen to be a beneficiary of identity politics,Paswan himself attributes it to the onset of a backward-forward cleavage,post Mandal,that left no space for a third option. He is nostalgic about the days when the struggle for social justice was more ideological” and “less casteist. In the socialist party,Karpoori Thakur was the only backward caste leader,other stalwarts belonged to the upper castes, he says.
Room for manoeuvre has shrunk at the Centre as well for members of the now scattered Janata parivar,he points out,for a different reason. With the Congress losing its monopoly at the Centre and in the states,and after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992,the Congress-versus-the-rest had given way to the secular-communal divide. Now,with the erosion of the Left,the choice is between the only two pillars that remain,BJP and Congress,he says.
Is Paswan Congress-bound,then? I am not associated with the Congress. There is no question of going again with the BJP. But overall,I am with the secular forces, is all he will say.
Back in Bihar,for the moment at least,Paswan appears to have accepted that hes been overtaken and outplayed. Ram Vilas Paswan is loved by Biharis even today, he declares. But though he lists the issues the LJP has taken up against the Nitish government,from the Forbesganj firing to the unfolding BIADA land controversy,the onus of fighting the political fight in Bihar now rests elsewhere. Against Nitish,the media must take the lead,Paswan says.