Elected to the Lok Sabha eight times and twice a member of the Rajya Sabha. A Union minister eight times under six prime ministers. Leader of the House in the Lok Sabha. The late Ram Vilas Paswan was born into the weaker section of the stratified society of Bihar, just over a year before Independence. He breathed his last on October 8, after 51 long and eventful years in public life. These figures, which made him a leader of a certain stature and a voice of the aspiring weaker sections of society, need to be understood in a proper perspective.
Paswan’s life and politics need to be understood in the context of the churn for social justice in the country. He was baptised into politics at the young age of 23 with his election to the Bihar Legislative Assembly in 1969. That was the time of political ferment in the country, with the dominance of the upper castes beginning to wane. This resulted in alternative governments in a few states in North India.
His personal experiences of discrimination and deprivation moulded Paswan’s worldview — seeking justice, liberty and equality for all. His opposition to the Emergency in 1975 was the first evidence of his yearning for the dignity and liberty of all individuals. He was arrested and imprisoned for a long time.
Paswan’s first election to the Lok Sabha from Hajipur in Bihar in 1977 with 89 per cent of the total votes polled — a Guinness record — was no ordinary event. It was an acknowledgement by the people of the constituency of the power of his words and deeds during the preceding eight years in public life and a realisation of the huge potential they saw in Paswan.
Social justice is the spirit and vision that animates the Indian Constitution. It is the duty of the state to secure a social order in which social justice is promoted based on constitutional principles. Ours is a constitutional democracy with defined rules of the game. The Constitution provides for necessary initiatives and actions to ensure social justice besides enabling the fulfilment of the aspirations of all and in particular, the deprived and the weaker sections.
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.
Paswan was a Union minister in governments of different ideological dispensations. He knew what he was doing. Paswan wanted to remain an independent identity but at the same time, he was also conscious of the limitations that he had to work within in the context of Indian politics. Keen to be a force to reckon with and also to push his vision of social justice, Paswan had allied himself with different parties and alliances. In the process, he emerged as one of the tallest voices of social justice and an acknowledged senior leader of the weaker sections, not only in Bihar but also outside.
No politician is devoid of ambition. But in Paswan’s case, he was propelled by a certain sense of mission, which was matched by a record of words and deeds that made him different. In my view, he wanted to demonstrate the possibilities offered by our chosen political system and seek change by being a part of it. His meteoric rise resonated among the weaker sections, building confidence in them which in turn strengthened our polity and deepened democracy.
Ram Vilas Paswan was a beneficiary of the system of positive discrimination. But his emergence as a leader and representative of a large number of those from the weaker sections of the society was made possible by sustained focus and effort. I am aware that as a Union minister, Paswan lent his might to protect and promote the rights and interests of the weaker sections whenever warranted. A recent intervention in this regard by him was with the government in the matter of restoring the original mandate of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Paswan proved that to pursue his chosen mission, it would be better to be in a position of power. He succeeded in emerging as the voice of the aspiring weaker sections.
As a minister in the Cabinets of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi, I was a witness to his commitment to the cause he believed in. We held several rounds of discussions on issues relating to social justice, peace, democracy and development. Paswan was an able administrator, great orator and a very effective parliamentarian — with forceful interventions from both the Treasury and Opposition benches.
In essence, Paswan endeavoured to harmonise the politics of power and the pursuit of social justice. This made him a unique politician, offering himself to diverse assessments. Nelson Mandela once said: “Your playing small does not serve the world. Who are you not to be great?” Ram Vilas Paswan was not wrong to seek greatness. He left his mark, following his chosen path. Ram Vilas ji’s sudden demise is a big loss to the country and a huge setback for the aspirations of the weaker sections of the country. I will miss a dear friend.
The writer is Vice-President of India
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