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Union minister Ram Vilas Paswan dies, allies and rivals pay tributes to Bihar’s ‘kingmaker’

Ram Vilas Paswan had earned a reputation as a ‘weather scientist’ for switching sides and remaining in power. He had had heart surgery last Sunday.

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New Delhi: Ram Vilas Paswan, the Union cabinet minister for consumer affairs, food and public distribution and patron of the Lok Janshakti Party, has died at the age of 74.

Paswan had undergone heart surgery at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi on 4 October after battling an ailment for over two months, and was supposed to have another operation in a few weeks.

But Thursday, his son and LJP chief Chirag Paswan announced his death on Twitter, saying: “Papa, you are no more, but I know you will always be with me.”

Paswan’s death comes just 20 days ahead of the crucial assembly elections in his home state of Bihar. The Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) that he founded in November 2000 is currently facing one of its most challenging tests, as last week, party chief Chirag announced that it would walk out of the NDA in Bihar and go solo, though it would continue to support the BJP at the Centre. This had led to speculation that he had the BJP’s backing in going against JD(U) president and Bihar CM Nitish Kumar.

Through this upheaval, Ram Vilas Paswan was out of action, getting treated at AIIMS. The heart problem had ensured that for the first time in his over four decades as a parliamentarian, Paswan missed a full session of Parliament — that too one in which the amendment bill to the Essential Commodities Act, which was being anchored by his ministry, was passed.

Tributes pour in

Within minutes of the announcement of his death, tributes started pouring in for the senior leader.

President Ram Nath Kovind called Paswan a visionary and a voice of the deprived masses.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi hailed his wisdom and statesmanship in a tweet.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, meanwhile, offered thoughts and prayers.

Young Communist leader from Bihar Kanhaiya Kumar said Paswan’s political life was an era unto itself.

Also read: Staying with Lalu would have been political suicide for Nitish Kumar: Ram Vilas Paswan

‘Weather scientist’ & ‘kingmaker’

Ram Vilas Paswan was once described by his contemporary and former Bihar CM Lalu Prasad Yadav as a “mausam vaigyanik” or weather scientist, for his ability to read which way the political wind was blowing, and promptly joining the winning side.

Paswan joined the United Front government in 1996, was a cabinet minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s NDA government, holding many key portfolios from railways to telecom, then served as cabinet minister in Manmohan Singh’s UPA governments too, before returning to the NDA fold in 2014 when Narendra Modi became PM.

Paswan’s critics and political analysts often used this record to label him ‘weathercock’ or ‘weathervane’.

Ram Vilas Paswan had emerged as a political force in Bihar as he was perceived to be the leader of the Paswan community of Dalits, who constitute six per cent of the state’s population. While this never put him in the running for chief ministership, it often resulted in him playing ‘kingmaker’ in Bihar.

In fact, he was known as one of the three “engines” of Bihar, the others being Lalu and Nitish.

Bihar Deputy CM Sushil Modi, another of Paswan’s contemporaries who had a 30-plus-year-long association with him, said: “A man who worked for the dalits without uttering a word against the upper castes, which other leaders did during the post-Mandal era to consolidate their vote bank. That is why he had a high acceptability among the upper castes.”

Paswan’s political opponents called him a “five-star Dalit leader” due to his lavish lifestyle. But he once responded by saying, “Do people want to see a Dalit leader wearing torn clothes?”

But Paswan believed in helping every section of society. “Whenever anyone asks for help, I do not look at their caste or community, I do whatever is possible,” he said. And it showed, because people going from Bihar to Delhi for treatment or any other work would make his house their first stop.

During his innings with the Narendra Modi government, he became its Dalit face, defending it on issues related to the community, said Sushil Modi. He had bitter political fights with both Lalu and Nitish, but never strained his personal relationships, which is why he had no problem in switching sides.

Hajipur’s favourite

Paswan first became an MLA with the Samyukt Socialist Party in 1969, and started winning the Hajipur parliamentary seat in 1977 with the Janata Party in 1977, after taking part in Jayaprakash Narayan’s socialist movement.

He set the record for winning from Hajipur with the highest number of votes in India, and won the seat eight times, losing only in 2009 when his party drew a blank.

He first became a Union minister under prime minister V.P. Singh, and yet kept visiting his constituency once a month to keep in touch with workers and voters. Thanks to Paswan, Hajipur became a zonal railway headquarter, and home to several other central projects.

However, Paswan failed to extend the influence of his party beyond Bihar. His dream was to make the LJP Bihar’s own version of the Bahujan Samaj Party, but over the last couple of years, having failed to make many big gains in that direction, he handed the reins to his son, actor-turned-politician Chirag.

Also read: Chirag Paswan, Nitish-Ram Vilas history, seats — why JD(U)-LJP rift is only growing


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