New Delhi: On the 74th birthday of Ram Vilas Paswan on 5 July, his son and parliamentarian, Chirag, tweeted a 2.14-minute slideshow video that featured his father with five of the six prime ministers he had worked with — V.P. Singh, H.D. Deve Gowda, I.K. Gujral, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi.
— युवा बिहारी चिराग पासवान (@iChiragPaswan) July 5, 2020
The one missing was Manmohan Singh. The slideshow had many other political stalwarts such as former PM Chandra Shekhar, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and Rashtriya Lok Dal chief Ajit Singh, but not a single present-day Congressman.
On Thursday, Paswan asserted, “My leader is Prime Minister Narendra Modi.”
Described by Lalu Prasad Yadav as “mausam vaigyanik” or weather scientist for his ability to read the political winds and go with the winning side, the Dalit leader from Bihar knows which side of the bread is butter. So does his son Chirag, the national president of the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP).
That’s why Chirag’s recent moves — attacks on the Nitish Kumar government — has got political observers curious.
A fortnight ago, he declared his chief ministerial ambition and said that the LJP is an ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and not of Kumar’s Janata Dal (United).
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On Thursday, the LJP spoke about its preparations to contest 94 of the 243 assembly seats in the November assembly election.
On Friday, Chirag expressed strong reservations against the holding of elections in times of the coronavirus crisis, a sentiment immediately shared on Twitter by Tejashwi Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD).
I will be the last person to have an election on dead bodies.If Nitish ji acknowledges that COVID is still a crisis,elections can be postponed until the situation improves but if he thinks COVID is not a problem,elections must be conducted with traditional means of electioneering
— Tejashwi Yadav (@yadavtejashwi) July 10, 2020
The Congress is also learnt to share this view. That the Congress and the RJD don’t want elections is understandable, given that the BJP’s digital campaign is already in full swing and the opposition parties remain hamstrung.
A minister in the Bihar government told ThePrint Friday that internal surveys show a “very clear edge” to Nitish Kumar.
“A section does think that we could have done more to curb corruption at the local level, but they also say that if anyone can deliver on this front, it’s only Nitish Kumar,” he said.
But why would the LJP, an NDA constituent, want to defer elections then? And, why would Chirag Paswan as also his father keep sniping at Nitish Kumar government?
“Do you think Nitish ji is bothered about what they (LJP leaders) say? Even the BJP’s top leadership is not bothered. Paswan wants to just extract a few more seats,” a senior JD(U) leader said.
Two other NDA leaders ThePrint spoke to shared similar views and also rejected suggestions of a BJP role in the LJP leaders’ anti-JD(U) pronouncements to put pressure on Nitish Kumar ahead of seat-sharing negotiations.
Paswan’s existential battle
There is more than meets the eye, say NDA leaders in Bihar.
The LJP needs to win enough seats in the Bihar assembly to remain relevant. The 2020 election could be the last for Nitish Kumar, who is 69 years old. After he hangs up his boots — in 2025 or before — the BJP hopes to appropriate his political legacy, which, when combined with the saffron party’s own vote bank, would propel it as the undisputed numero uno in Bihar politics.
The RJD, say NDA leaders, would just “dissipate” after another electoral setback, cementing the BJP’s domination in state politics and rendering its current alliance partners such as the LJP redundant.
Ram Vilas Paswan is 74, just one year shy of the unwritten code of keeping out 75-plus leaders out of the Modi government. He has been the part of every coalition government since 1989 — V.P. Singh’s National Front, Gowda-Gujral’s United Front, Vajpayee’s National Democratic Alliance, Manmohan Singh’s United Progressive Alliance and Narendra Modi’s NDA. But, all this while, Paswan’s political stocks in Bihar have only been dwindling.
He had had his best in February 2005 Bihar assembly election when the then 51-month-old LJP had secured 29 seats in a fractured assembly, prompting Ram Vilas Paswan to declare “chaabhi to mere paas hai (I have the key)” and demanding a Muslim chief minister. That was barely three years after he had resigned from the Vajpayee government, demanding the ouster of then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi over post-Godhra riots.
Paswan’s obdurate stand had forced the imposition of the President’s Rule and another election seven months later. The LJP has been on the downhill in every election since then.
In the October 2005 assembly election, its assembly tally came down to 10 and then 3 (out of 75 contested as RJD’s partner) in 2010, and 2 (out of 42 contested as the BJP’s partner) in 2015.
The LJP’s vote shares — around 13 per cent and 11 per cent in February and October 2005 (assembly elections) respectively, around 7 per cent in 2010 (assembly), 6.5 per cent in 2014 (Lok Sabha), 5 per cent in 2015 (assembly), and 8 per cent in 2019 (Lok Sabha) — might not look insignificant, but these figures reflect the strength of the alliances the LJP was part of, say NDA leaders.
They say that Ram Vilas Paswan, who had emerged as a Dalit leader, in 1970s has got reduced to being the leader of Paswans, a Dalit sub-caste that constitutes around 4-5 per cent of Bihar’s population.
“The fact is that the LJP is a liability for the NDA as Paswan’s presence alienates a section of upper caste voters. Today, even Paswans vote for the LJP because of Modi and Nitish Kumar, and not because of Ram Vilas Paswan,” said the JD(U) leader quoted above.
Can Paswan pull it off?
The LJP, say party sources, would like to contest at least 42 seats, which it had contested in 2015 assembly election when Nitish Kumar had joined hands with the Congress and the RJD.
The LJP would like its Lok Sabha performance — 6 seats in both 2014 and 2019 — to be the yardstick. But the counterpoint from the JD(U) camp is that these numbers don’t reflect Paswan’s political heft as they were the results of the ‘Modi wave’.
A BJP leader told ThePrint Paswan remains its valuable ally and the NDA’s Dalit face in Bihar in the absence of a credible Dalit leader in the state.
“In every constituency, you have 5,000 to 50,000 Paswan votes, and there is no reason to believe that they don’t vote for the NDA,” he said, justifying the BJP’s alliance with Paswan.
Asked if he thinks Chirag has inherited his father’s political legacy and would remain as valuable in future, the BJP leader said: “Us par baat nahi karenge (Won’t talk about that).”
This may not be very reassuring for Ram Vilas Paswan.
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