My camera loved him. As a young politician wanting to make his mark, he was always keen to squeeze into the frame with political heavyweights, from Chaudhary Charan Singh and George Fernandes to Chandra Shekhar and Jagjivan Ram. If he couldn’t find a place with the seniors in the front row, he would ensure that my camera caught his eye in the back row. In the heady days of the early 1980s, when I had just about started my career, he waltzed into my frames. With his trademark jet black hair, and white kurta-pyjama, the man from Bihar’s Hajipur was a combination of ambition and humility. The Lok Dal office was in Delhi’s Windsor Place and was a watering hole for politicians of all hues. Even rivals dropped in for a cup of tea. For Ram Vilas Paswan, this was just the beginning and it was important for him to be noticed in this galaxy of younger politicians who were thrown up by JP’s movement and the fight against Indira Gandhi’s Emergency.
I got a ringside view of this Dalit leader from the time he came to Delhi in 1977 after winning his Lok Sabha seat from the Hajipur constituency with a big margin. Paswan climbed the political ladder rapidly. And it was just a matter of time before he was called to join the government and become a minister. But the trappings of power didn’t make Paswan arrogant. He had a generous heart and was eager to lend a helping hand to everyone — with a soft corner for journalists. For me, he had a special fondness and we shared a warm personal relationship, which I will always cherish. As my camera followed him over the years, I got to know the man very well and realised that he was indeed genuine.
A helpful minister
I recall when a colleague, senior journalist Padmanand Jha, known by his nickname ‘Paddy’, met with a near-fatal accident, in Noida in 1997. The hospital we took him to seemed rather callous about his deteriorating condition. As usual, I sent an SOS to Paswan, particularly because he also knew Paddy. He responded immediately ensuring that Paddy got the best medical treatment in Kailash Hospital in Noida, which was owned by Mahesh Sharma, who later became a Union minister. Paswan even personally visited the hospital to ensure that Paddy got VIP treatment. Later on, he made the arrangement to shift Paddy to a super speciality hospital. He was so thoughtful that he brought cash with him, which he quietly handed to me to pass on to Paddy’s wife. He explained with concern that at a time like this it is good to keep some money handy. Paddy’s wife was indeed grateful.
As Paswan and my relationship grew over the years, I discovered a politician who was not trapped by the party he was aligned with. Unlike many politicians, he was friends across the political divide and not for personal gain. I recall his efforts towards getting young Varun Gandhi into the Congress fold. Paswan and Sonia Gandhi, his next-door neighbour, shared a relationship of trust and mutual admiration. But while Sonia was willing to accept Varun, she had reservations about his mother Maneka Gandhi. Matters did not progress.
When Paswan was the communications minister, The Indian Express office had just shifted to the Qutab Institutional Area and we were having problems setting up a communications network. With my colleague Harpal Singh, I went to meet Paswan but he was in the middle of an important meeting with some Members of Parliament. We waited outside for a long time because his officious security staff refused to let us enter. Finally, I lost patience and just pushed the door open and walked inside. Paswan saw me immediately, smiled and came towards me. ‘Kaise aana hua (What brings you here)?’ he asked and left the meeting explaining, ‘Mera dost aaya hai (my friend has come)’.
I tried to tell Paswan our problem, he interrupted and simply asked: ‘Kaam chhota hai ya bada (is the job small or big)?’ I told him it was a significant job so he just called a senior member of his team, and made sure the officer resolved the issue immediately. I also remember that I had noticed he didn’t have a mobile phone at the time. I asked him how come he was the communications minister but didn’t have a cell phone. He replied with his typical frankness and humour that he hadn’t learnt how to use one yet.
A humble man
When he was appointed the railway minister in 1996, Ram Vilas Paswan called me. We chatted for a while before he suddenly asked me if I had ever been on the special train of the Indian Railways. He told me it had bedrooms and its own salon and that we must go, together. So a plan was hatched for an exclusive. I was delighted at the prospect of being able to get snaps of him on his travels, and he was excited to take me on this train. The very next day, we embarked for Haryana via Bahadurgarh. On the way, he was waving to the public on one of the platforms when someone came out of the crowd and pushed him. I was right behind him and looked on in shock. But he was unruffled, he continued waving to the public and I resumed taking my pictures.
Once I had gone to an Iftar party at Hyderabad House with my editor Shekhar Gupta. When we left, we found ourselves stuck in a traffic jam, since all the ministerial vehicles got priority. Shekhar had an important meeting to attend and he was getting late. I could sense that he was very tense. Suddenly, I saw Paswan passing by, I waved to him and requested him to give a lift to Shekhar. Paswan was the only minister with whom I could have dreamt of taking such liberties. He smiled and said, ‘Gupta ji ko kaun nahin le jana chahega? Isi bahane main unse baat bhi kar lunga (Who wouldn’t want to give a lift to Mr Gupta? It will also give us an excuse to talk).’
A long-time friend
Because of his fondness for me, Paswan wanted to accommodate me in various committees in the numerous ministries he held, without my knowledge and to my embarrassment. For instance, he put my name in the communications committee and I had to request him to take my name off. It took him a while to understand that I wanted no special favour, but when he realised I was upset, he humbly apologised.
Then, there was the time I was planning to go to Goa with my wife and children for a well-deserved vacation. I had booked my train tickets in advance, but they hadn’t been confirmed yet. I put in a request with Paswan’s personal assistant Jogendra and hoped he would be able to see them through. The very next day Jogendra called me to Paswan’s residence. I went, wondering what this could be about.
When I reached, Jogendra gave me a document and told me this was a golden pass to travel with my family in the First AC compartment to wherever I wanted. Jogendra told me that henceforth I would have no problems with train reservations. I was touched, but told him firmly that I could not accept. All I wanted was for my ticket to be confirmed.
The weather scientist
Ram Vilas Paswan used to confide in me how very worried he was about his son Chirag’s prospect when he did not succeed in the Bollywood film industry. I pointed out to him that the obvious career for Chirag was politics, which he eventually joined.
H.D. Deve Gowda was the prime minister when Congress president Sitaram Kesri protested demanding that the PM be changed. Kesri thought that Deve Gowda was P.V. Narasimha Rao’s man. In the Press Club, after drinking two pegs, Paswan called me to his office and took me to the restroom, saying that there was a high possibility that after Deve Gowda, he can become the prime minister. He then offered me the position of Officer on Special Duty (OSD) to the Prime Minister if that happens. I refused and said that you will be the Prime Minister only for one year, and if I resign and join you, I will lose my job at The Indian Express. I asked him to do just one thing — if you become the PM, and there is a public event or press conference, just wave your hand and say: ‘Hello Praveen Jain, kaisa hai (how are you)?’ This will make me happy. He had nothing to say and only smiled at me.
It was thanks to Ram Vilas Paswan that I had the courage to organise a retrospective exhibition of my political photos. One day, I was sitting with him and chatting, and he suggested that I put a big photo exhibition. I dismissed the idea wondering from where I would raise the funds. But he insisted that his ministry would be happy to help sponsor the show. He did more than that. He was the chief guest at the inauguration, even though he was unwell. He also encouraged other photographers at the function to hold similar exhibitions and said that he would help out. No wonder, he was everyone’s favourite minister. He had a truly generous heart.
Views are personal.