Ram Vilas Paswan cut his political teeth under the tutelage of Jayaprakash Narayan, Karpoori Thakur and Raj Narain but his worldview and politics were inspired mainly by Ram Manohar Lohia. Throughout his life, he embraced Lohia’s dictum that “in a struggle between the rich and poor, be sure to support the poor. So also, in the fight between the upper caste and the Dalit, or the majority and the minority, come out in support of the weaker of the two and you would have done the right thing.”
His life-long mission was to fight injustice and be the voice of the dispossessed and the downtrodden. Unlike leaders who could not look beyond their own caste, he used his political capital and power on behalf of the most vulnerable citizens, irrespective of their affiliation. He played a pivotal role in implementing the cataclysmic Mandal-inspired OBC reservation that changed Indian politics for good. An indefatigable champion of Dalit rights, he was instrumental in the executive’s repudiation of the Supreme Court verdict diluting the punitive clauses of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
Muslims have always had a special affinity for Paswanji. They have not forgotten that in the wake of the Gujarat riots in 2002, he resigned as a minister in protest. During the years of unremitting insurgency in Kashmir, he was one of the few leaders, apart from George Fernandes, who could move around the state without an armed escort. As late as 2016, Paswanji had pitched for a “mahasanghatan” of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh with a common currency and open trade — a la the European Union. In recent years, one of his abiding sorrows was the complete rupture in relations with Pakistan owing to that country’s repeated perfidy. Knowing intimately the pulse of this nation, he was painfully aware of how relations with Pakistan impacted Muslims in India.
Paswanji was the quintessential minister, dignified, soft-spoken and completely devoid of administrative self-importance. Government officials who had the privilege of working with him will vouch for his razor-sharp mind and affable style. Not only was he nimble in comprehending even the most technical of subjects, but more often than not, his inputs enhanced understanding. Although he did not suffer fools gladly, he had infinite faith in the capacity of people to overcome ignorance, error and prejudice through knowledge. He urged his officers to cut out the red tape and bureaucratese to improve productivity. Indeed, he was a wonderful teacher and guide. And lest we forget, he was one of the great public speakers of our time, his speeches remarkable for sheer lucidity of thought and expression.
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? None! 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.
A sage once said that to be honourable and faithful in small things is a great thing. I have never been to a more hospitable and welcoming home than Paswanji’s. Anyone, irrespective of social status, was treated with genuine warmth and caring and the inevitable sweetmeat and tea. He empathised with people’s suffering and always lent a helping hand to those in need. His passing has left a gaping hole in the lives of the millions who looked up to him as their messiah.
Farewell, my dearest Sir. This poor soul who has been the beneficiary of your goodness and largesse for the last three decades is orphaned and desolate. There will never be another like you.
The writer, a retired civil servant, is secretary general of the Lok Janshakti Party. Views are personal
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