Ram Vilas Paswan is at the lowest point in his almost five-decade-long political career. Paswan recently received a message from BJP president Amit Shah, who asked him to go to Amethi and campaign for BJP candidate Smriti Irani, who, like 2014, is challenging Congress president Rahul Gandhi. Since Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party is part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, it sounds very innocuous and ordinary that the BJP would want him to campaign for one of its candidates. Paswan duly obliged and shared the stage with Smriti Irani in Amethi Sunday and also posted images on social media.
But Ram Vilas Paswan, and perhaps Amit Shah as well, knew the larger connotation of this election rally. Campaigning in favour of Smriti Irani, but most importantly against Congress chief Rahul Gandhi, has a larger political implication for Ram Vilas Paswan, who not only shares (or at least used to share) a cordial relation with United Progressive Alliance (UPA) chairperson Sonia Gandhi but was also a minister in the first UPA government and a member of Rajya Sabha during its second term (2010-2014).
It was quite natural therefore that Ram Vilas Paswan would be reluctant to the idea of campaigning in Amethi. His arguments that he was preoccupied in Bihar where his party is fighting elections on six seats failed to have any effect. His son Chirag Paswan’s veiled threats to pull out of the NDA could have prompted the BJP to offer the senior Paswan a Rajya Sabha membership from Assam, where there will soon be a vacancy, and make him not contest the Lok Sabha elections. It helps the BJP that Paswan’s son and two brothers are in the fray in Bihar and their chances of winning the election depends on support from the saffron party. With little bargaining power, Ram Vilas Paswan had no other option but to agree to campaign in Amethi.
There is not enough clarity on why Amit Shah insisted on Ram Vilas Paswan campaigning in Amethi. Paswan has no influence in that area and his Dusadh caste has no presence in the central Uttar Pradesh. He would have been of some importance if the BJP had utilised him in the eastern Uttar Pradesh. It seems that Amit Shah wanted Ram Vilas Paswan to attend the rally in Amethi for the same reason that the latter was reluctant to do so — campaigning against Congress in their bastion will burn the bridges that Paswan had so meticulously cultivated over such a long time. This would also ensure that in a post-election scenario, it will be difficult for Ram Vilas Paswan and his LJP to switch sides and join the Congress-led camp.
Ram Vilas Paswan has used such bridges too often in his political journey. He started his political career as a protégé of Socialist leader and former Bihar chief minister Karpoori Thakur, and became an MLA in 1969 on Samyukta Socialist Party symbol. But he soon left the party to join another socialist formation led by Raj Narain, who later became the health minister in the Union cabinet in 1977. Paswan was in the opposition camp during the Emergency, served time in prison and later joined the Janata Party to win the 1977 Lok Sabha election from Hajipur constituency. He still very proudly remembers his presence in the Guinness Book of World Records for winning an election with the highest margin.
It will require a whole lot of research and analysis and googling to document Ram Vilas Paswan’s political journey, especially the parties he joined and left and formed and how and why he has done so and what were the consequences. In a nutshell, Ram Vilas Paswan has been part of nearly every political coalition at the central level and has served in almost all coalitions as a Union minister, be it the National Front or the United Front or NDA or UPA. He was leader of the ruling front in the Lok Sabha during the regime of HD Deve Gowda and Inder Kumar Gujral, as both these former prime ministers were members of the Upper House. During the change of regime in 1997, when the first non-Congress government came to power at the Centre, Ram Vilas Paswan was one of the contenders for the top job but the Congress president at that time, Sitaram Kesri, put his weight behind IK Gujral, which tilted the balance in favour of the politician from Punjab.
After the demise of the United Front, Ram Vilas Paswan shifted his loyalties to the NDA and joined the ministry. Soon after, he left the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government following the 2002 Gujarat riots. That, however, did not deter him from joining the Narendra Modi-led NDA in 2014. He does it so effortlessly all the time that political analysts are often left baffled. To cut the long story short, it can be said that Ram Vilas Paswan has been almost everywhere and with everyone. He switched sides so often and so wisely that in the political circles, he is known as the real “weatherman” of Delhi who can forecast accurately which way the political wind will blow.
There is no point in singling Ram Vilas Paswan out on this count because as far as the ideology is concerned, the differentiating lines in the Indian politics are very thin. With a stringent anti-defection law in place, the politics of ‘Aaya Ram, Gaya Ram’ has come to an end for individuals, but for political parties it has been an easy task to switch sides. We cannot and should not blame Ram Vilas Paswan because he is not the only one practising this politics.
I will not criticise Ram Vilas Paswan on this count also because of other reasons: he is not a dynast; he comes from a poor family of Dusadh caste, the lowest in the social hierarchy; he did not have any ‘godfather’ in politics; and his survival alone is one of the wonders of Indian democracy. He has done all this with almost negligible social and cultural capital. He is hungry for power, yes, but which politician in India is not. Ram Vilas Paswan has compromised on his political ideology, but to compromise is to follow the dominant ideology of our times.
So, has Ram Vilas Paswan made any forecast about the 2019 Lok Sabha elections? He hasn’t said anything explicitly. But going by the choices he has made, it seems that after having fought many battles, the weatherman of Indian politics is not sure about the outcome this time. His party, LJP, has sided with the NDA and six of his candidates, including his son Chirag and brothers Pashupati Nath Paras and Ramchandra Paswan, are contesting the elections from Bihar. But it remains a puzzle why Ram Vilas Paswan himself is not contesting the Lok Sabha election. Does he fear losing? We don’t know. The BJP has promised him a Rajya Sabha seat. Is the LJP chief hedging and taking preventive actions now? Maybe yes.
It is said that Ram Vilas Paswan’s politics is now all about bungalow, the election symbol of the LJP. About two decades ago, Paswan was allotted a sprawling kothi in 12 Janpath, adjacent to 10 Janpath where Sonia Gandhi resides. Come what may, Ram Vilas Paswan never vacated this place. This chalet is now his empire where he resides, where he rules. This is his weather office. To retain this bungalow, he needs to be in one of the houses of Parliament. By deciding to be a member of the Rajya Sabha, as promised by the BJP, Ram Vilas Paswan has insured that the bungalow remains with him. With one small, but a very crucial rider — that the BJP must keep its promise. For what it’s worth, Ram Vilas Paswan may have already paid the price for the bungalow by campaigning in Amethi.
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