New Delhi: Since 1996, Ram Vilas Paswan, the Union minister for steel, chemicals and fertilizers has been a fixture in the country’s cabinet, albeit, by being part of three different coalitions, the United Front of which neither the Congress nor the Bharatiya Janata Party were members, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA).
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Paswan, says a long-time confidant of the minister who did not wish to be identified, knows where his interest lies. The minister himself couldn’t be reached for comment despite several attempts.
Paswan, whose name once figured in the Guiness Book of World Records for winning a parliamentary election by the highest margin—he did this in 1977 from Hajipur, but has since been replaced by another Indian, the late Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao from Nandyal—entered politics when he was a post-graduate student at Patna University.
Like his contemporary and one-time-foe-turned-ally Lalu Prasad, he owes his entry to Jayaprakash Narayan’s political movement that, in many ways, gave India its first batch of non-Congress leaders. Like many of those leaders, Paswan, who looks much younger than his 62 years, was jailed during the emergency declared by Indira Gandhi in 1975.
“Since he was the only Dalit in the team, he got so much importance,” said a Patna-based contemporary of Paswan, who was part of Narayan’s movement and who did not wish to be identified.
In 1977, he won a parliamentary election for the first time—on a Janata Party ticket.
Click here to rate your leaders
Since then, he has fought seven elections from the same constituency, Hajipur. He is contesting from the seat again this year, the second time he will be contesting under the banner of the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) he formed in 2000 after breaking away from the Janata Dal (United) or JD(U).
And this year, he will be contesting as an ally of Lalu Prasad. Their common enemy: Nitish Kumar, the chief minister of Bihar, and leader of the JD(U).
Also See At a Glance (PDF)
Still, not too many people give the combine a chance.
“The Dalit vote is already divided. Ram Vilas will definitely get the Paswan votes but same can not be said about the other castes. Paswans are not a major community in Bihar and their percentage varies from 2-5% depending upon the constituency. The wind is not blowing in their (Lalu Prasad and Ram Vilas Paswan) favour,” said Ganesh Prasad Ojha, head of political science department at Patna University.
Even a senior cabinet minister, who did not wish to be identified, admitted that the LJP-RJD “combination will fail as Nitish has worked for Bihar”.
The minister also found it strange that both Paswan and Prasad had turned their backs on the Congress after “Soniaji supported Lalu so much and...we did so much for Paswan”.
Paswan’s party itself is a family affair, say the man’s critics. While he is the all India chief of LJP, his brother Pashupati Kumar Paras is the Bihar state president and his other brother Ram Chandra Paswan the president of Dalit Sena (an organization for Dalit emancipation and welfare found by Ram Vilas Paswan in 1983).
“His father-in-law, Puneet Rai, is the state president of Dalit Sena, because he does not have a fourth brother,” said a senior Congress leader in Bihar who did not wish to be identified.
Not surprisingly, the party has seen a fair level of in-party fighting. Paswan’s cousin Maheshwar Hazari, who was LJP’s chief whip, left the fold recently after levelling nepotism charges against Paswan and is contesting against the party’s candidate from Samastipur.
The various ministries that Paswan has managed, however, seem to have been managed efficiently.
Bureaucrats who have worked under Paswan say he is a good manager.
“He is very different from other ministers and gives a lot of space to his officers. He also has a clear idea about what will work at the grass-root level. He is very polite with his officers to the level that he will get up to receive them. That’s the level of courtesy extended by him,” said a senior government official who has worked with Paswan but did not wish to be identified.
Over the years, Paswan has handled important portfolios such as railways, communications and coal. His future, and that of the coalition that will form the next government, however, are linked not to any ministry but the state of Bihar.
The importance of Bihar
Bihar, with a population of 35 million people, sends 40 law makers to the Lower House of Parliament. In the 2004 Lok Sabha election, the LJP had won four seats, RJD 22 seats, the JD(U) six, the BJP five and the Congress three.
This time, Paswan could do far worse, says one voter.
“Paswan would not be getting as many votes as the 2004 elections. There is polarization of votes in the favour of JD(U) and delimitation will further hit him. Caste no longer remains the big issue as Nitish has made development the main plank,” said Divya Prakash, a Patna-based businessman.
Paswan’s main rival is Ram Sunder Das of JD(U), a former chief minister of Bihar, veteran socialist leader and a Dalit. Of around 1.4 million voters in Hajipur constituency, Das has the backing of the Rajputs, who have a 9.2% presence in the constituency. With Bhumihars, who have a 11.42% share, expected to back Das and the extremely back ward castes likely to vote for the JD(U), Paswan has a tough fight ahead, say analysts.
And it isn’t just he who is looking forward to the summer with bated breath.
His son, Chirag, makes a Bollywood debut in July.