Ram Vilas Paswan, who passed away on Thursday, was one of the tallest Dalit leaders in the country. However, his political tradition was different from the Ambedkarite stream that has become the defining idiom of Dalit politics in recent times. His political vision was influenced by Ram Manohar Lohia and the social justice politics he practised privileged a broad oppressed caste identity over Dalit exclusivity. It provided him the tactical nous and space to negotiate with more influential leaders from the backward castes in Bihar, his political battleground, without letting his identity of a Dalit politician be subsumed in the Janata Party or its many off-shoots. He recognised the importance of political office to Dalit emancipation and was arguably willing to compromise on ideology to be part of the government — he was a minister with as many as six prime ministers, including Narendra Modi, over whose role in the 2002 Gujarat riots he quit the NDA. He was a natural in coalition politics and, not surprisingly, became a notable presence in the coalition ministries led by the Janata Dal (1989-90 and 1996-98), the BJP (1998-2002 and 2014-2020) and the Congress (2004-14).
Paswan entered electoral politics on a Samyukta Socialist Party ticket in the 1969 Bihar assembly election. That was the heyday of Lohiaite politics, which stood for a fairer representation of oppressed communities. He resigned his assembly ticket on Jayaprakash Narayan’s call for Total Revolution and was jailed during the Emergency. He was elected to the Lok Sabha in the 1977 Janata wave with a record margin. As social welfare minister in the VP Singh government, he was responsible for the implementation of the Mandal Commission report. Ironically, the political reconfiguration that followed Mandal limited his growth in national politics. Mandal paved the way for assertion of caste-centric identity politics, prodding Paswan to leave the Janata Dal and form the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) in 2000, which, however, failed to expand beyond his Dusadh caste.
Besides Mandal, the rise of the BSP under Kanshi Ram and the idea of a Bahujan Samaj fired the Dalit political imagination in the 1990s. Mayawati, who became UP chief minister multiple times, emerged as the tallest Dalit leader in India. Nitish Kumar undercut Paswan’s claim to be a leader of all the Dalits in Bihar. Though his political influence waned in the last phase of his life, Paswan, like another illustrious Dalit leader from Bihar, Babu Jagjivan Ram, will be remembered as an amiable politician and efficient administrator.
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