An excerpt from Sobhana K. Nair’s Ram Vilas Paswan — The Weathervane of Indian Politics: Crossing lines

When faced with political extinction, Ram Vilas Paswan often used his ideological agnosticism to switch sides

March 01, 2024 09:02 am | Updated 09:02 am IST

Ram Vilas Paswan

Ram Vilas Paswan | Photo Credit: R.V. Moorthy

No one can quite recall how Ram Vilas Paswan came to be known as ‘mausam vaigyanik’ or the “weathervane of Indian politics.” In the Introduction to her book, Ram Vilas Paswan: The Weathervane of Indian Politics, Sobhana K. Nair writes that political commentator Abhay Kumar credits Lalu Prasad Yadav for coming up with this descriptor for his political adversary from Bihar, who would become the face of Dalits. Paswan used his ideological agnosticism to cross many political lines, as this edited excerpt shows:

In the 1998 general elections, the Janata Dal was reduced to a shadow of its 1989 self. It contested 191 seats and managed to win only six. Its vote share now stood at a little over 3%, six times less than what it got in 1989. In Bihar, it was in a pitiable situation — of the 35 seats, it lost the deposit in 27 seats. Ram Vilas Paswan was the only candidate to win. Sharad Yadav lost to Lalu Prasad Yadav from Madhepura by a margin of 51,000 votes. Bihar was neatly divided into the RJD vs NDA camp, with no slot left for the Janata Dal.

(From left) Then Prime Minister I.K. Gujral, Sharad Yadav, H.D. Deve Gowda and Ram Vilas Paswan at a meeting of Janata Dal Political Affairs Committee in New Delhi on March 5, 1998.

(From left) Then Prime Minister I.K. Gujral, Sharad Yadav, H.D. Deve Gowda and Ram Vilas Paswan at a meeting of Janata Dal Political Affairs Committee in New Delhi on March 5, 1998. | Photo Credit: Kamal Narang

Guided solely by their motivation to defeat Lalu, Sharad Yadav and Paswan were ready to sup with the devil if need be. So when George Fernandes called out to Sharad Yadav and Paswan, they were easily enticed. ‘Paristhiti hi kuch aisi thi’ (the situation was such), Sharad Yadav said, giving himself a concession in hindsight. Realpolitik overwhelmed secular commitments.

Then Bihar Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav, Janata Dal leaders Ram Vilas Paswan and Sharad Yadav during the party workers conference in Patna on October 2, 1994, in preparation for a rally proposed to be held on October 31, 1994 — the birth anniversary of Sardar Patel.

Then Bihar Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav, Janata Dal leaders Ram Vilas Paswan and Sharad Yadav during the party workers conference in Patna on October 2, 1994, in preparation for a rally proposed to be held on October 31, 1994 — the birth anniversary of Sardar Patel. | Photo Credit: PTI

‘Tacit understanding’

The Political Affairs Committee of the Janata Dal met on July 18 to discuss this tricky problem and the debate stretched over three days. The committee was unevenly divided with 11 of the 16 members opposing the move. “The idea of joining a BJP-led alliance hits at the very soul of the party,” said Madhu Dandavate. But both Sharad Yadav and Paswan were convinced that they would perish if they didn’t join the BJP-led NDA.

Leader of India’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) Lalu Prasad Yadav (L) and Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) Chief Ram Vilas Paswan in New Delhi on March 17, 2009.

Leader of India’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) Lalu Prasad Yadav (L) and Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) Chief Ram Vilas Paswan in New Delhi on March 17, 2009. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

They smartly packaged the move as “reunification of the Janata Parivar (read Janata Dal)” and reviving the spirit of 1989. This was the sixth split for the Janata Dal in a decade. It is not as if the NDA welcomed them without any inhibitions. Many voiced reservations, the Janata Dal was after all the nuclear waste of Indian politics, forever simmering but without the necessary strength to detonate.

Paswan was of the view that the “corruption of the RJD and the threat to national security posed by a foreign prime ministerial candidate [Sonia Gandhi] is greater than the threat of communalism.” The very man who used to hector the BJP standing from the pulpit of secularism, now claimed that the BJP had changed. It is no longer pursuing contentious issues such as the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, the enforcement of a uniform civil code and the abrogation of Article 370, he claimed. When pointed out that the leaders of the Sangh Parivar, which included the BJP, had made no statement to this effect, Paswan said that there was a tacit understanding with the BJP on these issues.

These assertions were deeply shocking in the backdrop of Paswan’s vituperative speeches against the BJP from 1998. In the very first floor test that the Vajpayee government faced in Parliament after their victory in the February 1998 general elections, Paswan had voted against the BJP government. The government won the motion by a narrow margin of 15 votes setting the tone for an uncomfortable 13 months ahead.

During a debate on the Motion of Thanks to the President’s address, Paswan delivered one of his sharpest attacks against the BJP, beginning with his exposition on the dangers of the BJP brand of Hindutva. He scoffed at the “good cop-bad cop” binary used for Vajpayee and Advani. “If Advani is poison then Vajpayee is sugar-coated poison,” he declared.

Then Minister of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution and President of Lok Janshakti Party leader, Ram Vilas Paswan in New Delhi, in 2018.

Then Minister of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution and President of Lok Janshakti Party leader, Ram Vilas Paswan in New Delhi, in 2018. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

The religion debate

Paswan’s argument was simple. A nation cannot and should not have a religion. A ‘Hindu Nation’ that the BJP has been projecting simply must not be allowed to be erected. “Fire and water do not have any religion. They cannot be either Hindu or Muslim. In the same way, the nation is neither Hindu nor Muslim. If we want a Hindu nation can we then deny Khalistan?”

But when faced with his own political extinction in Bihar, forced by Lalu Prasad Yadav’s extended regime, the BJP’s communal faults had disappeared overnight. For Paswan and Yadav, the split and joining the NDA turned out to be good. In the September 1999 general elections, Sharad Yadav as a candidate of Janata Dal (United) defeated Lalu Prasad Yadav in Madhepura. Paswan cornering 56% of the vote share was back in Parliament from Hajipur.

Ram Vilas Paswan: The Weathervane of Indian Politics; Sobhana K. Nair, Roli Books, ₹595.

Excerpted with permission from Roli Books.

sobhanak.nair@thehindu.co.in

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in

Comments

Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.