It was a simple question posed by his friend, “Do you want to be the government or servant?” that led socialist leader Ram Vilas Paswan into politics. In the half century that he spent in the profession, he came to be known as the weather vane of Indian politics, serving in the Cabinets of six Prime Ministers of all hues, from the United Front government of H.D. Deve Gowda to the BJP-led government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
It was 1968. Ram Vilas Paswan, then a 22-year-old, had secured the position of Deputy Superintendent of Police in Bihar, a huge leap for the son of a Dalit farmer, brought up in flood-prone Shaharbannii village, now known as mantri tola thanks to its famous resident, in Khagaria district of Bihar. Should he take the unpredictable life of a legislator or return to being a “Dy.SP”, was the question.
His friend Lakshmi Narain Arya said, “Yeh toh aapke upar nirbhar karta hai, aap government ban-na chate hai ya servant ban-na chahte hai.” He never joined the police.
It has been a roller coaster ride for Mr. Paswan from the heartland of Bihar to 12 Janpath, sharing the boundary wall with one of the most famous political addresses of the country, UPA president Sonia Gandhi’s residence at 10 Janpath.
He was in equal measure a participant and a spectator in the Lutyens power matrix. And he wore many hats — a Dalit leader, a socialist, a liberal and also a political opportunist.
There was no turning back for him after being elected MLA in 1969 from the Samyukta Socialist Party. It is difficult to believe that till he fought his first election, he had no brush with politicians and had not attended a single political rally. It was more of a dare to defeat Congress old-timer Mishri Sadda who had been winning the Alauli seat since 1952.
In the 42 years since, he had been elected to the Lok Sabha eight times barring in 2009. And this year, he returned to Parliament once again for a second stint in the Rajya Sabha.
In 1975, when the Emergency was proclaimed, he was arrested and spent the entire period in jail. On being released in 1977, he became a member of the Janata Party and won the election to the Lok Sabha for the first time on its ticket. He held the world record for winning the election by the highest margin.
In 1989, he first became a Minister handling the Labour portfolio in the V.P. Singh government. His favourite stint was as Railway Minister in 1996 under Mr. Deve Gowda’s leadership. He was also part of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, in which he was unceremoniously removed as Communications Minister, an announcement, he often said, that he first heard on TV.
In 2000, Mr. Paswan broke from the Janata Dal to form the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) building up on the Dalit sena that he had formed in 1983. In 2002, after the Godhra riots, he quit the NDA. For a while, he drifted in the political wilderness which lifted when Congress president Sonia Gandhi, a neighbour of many years, walked across to his house to convince him to join the UPA. In the February 2005 Bihar Assembly elections, Mr. Paswan’s LJP contested the election with the Congress. The results threw up a hung Assembly. The LJP won 29 seats, its highest tally ever in the State. However, Mr. Paswan refused to support either Nitish Kumar or Lalu Prasad. Instead he insisted that a Muslim be made the Chief Minister. The State went to the polls again and Nitish Kumar won.
In 2014, it was his son Chirag Paswan who steered him towards the BJP, a party that he had publicly recoiled from. He was the oldest of three brothers and one sister. He is often called a dynast. He brought his brothers Pashupati Nath Paras and late Ramchandra Paswan into politics. Of the six seats that the LJP won in 2019, three are from his family — Chirag, brother Pashupati Kumar Paras and nephew Prince Raj.