India mourns Bihar’s Dalit icon Paswan; national flag flies at half-mast

Cremation on October 10; the LJP leader’s absence will cast a long shadow over Bihar polls

Ram Vilas Paswan, a minister in Prime Minister Modi’s cabinet and founder of the LJP, was recuperating from heart surgery. File photo: PTI

The body of Union Minister and Lok Janshakti Party leader Ram Vilas Paswan was taken to his residence in Delhi from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) on Friday (October 9). The Dalit leader died on Thursday at the age of 74.

His son, Chirag Paswan, and Health Minister Harsh Vardhan were among those present at AIIMS.

Paswan, a minister in Prime Minister Modi’s cabinet and founder of the LJP, was recuperating from heart surgery. He was undergoing treatment at the hospital, and had to undergo surgery last Saturday “due to the situation that had suddenly emerged,” Chirag Paswan had tweeted on Saturday.

The national flags at Rashtrapati Bhavan and Parliament were flown at half-mast on Friday to mourn the minister’s death.

Home ministry officials said a state funeral will be accorded to Paswan and the national flag will fly at half-mast in Delhi and state capitals as a mark of respect. Cremation will take place in Patna on Saturday.

Ram Vilas Paswan has been a minister in almost all Central governments since 1989 and served six Prime ministers, starting with the cabinet of VP Singh. In PM Modi’s cabinet, he was in charge of the Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution portfolios.

Related news: Union minister Ram Vilas Paswan dead, Modi, Kovind send condolences

Shadow on Bihar

His death, days before Bihar votes in the first phase on October 28, will cast a shadow on the crucial polls, and have a bearing on almost every political move by the key players.

The BJP has handled Chirag, but after the death of its long-time ally Paswan, it will be even more cautious about any overt criticism of the LJP.

As for the LJP national president Chirag, who has taken a leap of faith by fighting the elections alone, his father’s death leaves him in an extremely delicate position.

Days before Paswan’s death, a senior LJP leader described the father-son’s politics as complementing each other. “Even though he is unwell, the mere presence of Ram Vilasji reassures the Dalit voter, especially the Dusadh (Paswans). He won his first election in 1969. Since then, he has always been a man of the people. The way he talked, or carried himself never changed. He is the tallest Paswan leader. His son Chirag is the boy who went to Bollywood, but now is creating his own space. He speaks English well, and can pull in the youth and is positioning himself as such,” the senior leader had said.

A senior JD(U) leader said Paswan’s death has left all of Bihar, even his political opponents, in grief. “Paswan did not put off anyone. His death will have no effect on the votes that the LJP wanted from anti-incumbency. But the question is of the core Dalit voter,” he said.

Paswan had started transferring power to his son soon after the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. After the LJP won six of the seven seats it contested that election, he had made Chirag chairman of the party’s parliamentary board. A few months ago, Chirag took over as the party’s national president. Whenever the media asked the father-son duo if Chirag hoped to become Bihar CM someday, it would always be the father who answered with a straightforward “yes”.

Related news: Union minister Paswan undergoes heart surgery

Paswan’s innings

When Ram Vilas Paswan arrived in Patna after winning his first election from Alauli (Khagaria) in 1969 as a Samyukta Socialist Party candidate, he did not know what his leader Karpoori Thakur looked like. Thakur would grow to respect Paswan as much as the young MLA admired the man who as CM in 1977 ushered in social and political change by enforcing reservations.

Paswan set a Guinness Record for the largest ever victory margin, and had made political waves in that very first election, defeating Congress veteran Misri Sada, while campaigning on a bicycle he had bought with some of the money his father Jamun Das gave him to buy a health drink to tone up his lanky stature.

Paswan went on to form the Lok Janshakti Party in 2000. The biggest Dalit leader of Bihar after Jagjivan Ram, his other claim to fame was this uncanny ability to pick the winning side, of whatever hue, and retain a place in the Union Cabinet.

In 1990, Paswan had said he was the first choice of VP Singh who had become the Prime Minister defeating Rajiv Gandhi. But Singh ultimately chose another Dalit leader, Ram Sundar Das. Finally, Paswan’s junior Lalu Prasad became the CM for the first time, stealing a march on him as the tallest leader in the state.

Related news: ‘Paswan ka Chirag’ set to light up Bihar poll scene

Paswan would hold the consolation of trouncing Das almost all the half-a-dozen times they faced each other in elections.

Ram Vilas Paswan death Bihar LJPIn 2005, Paswan got another shot at chief ministership when the LJP got 29 seats and held the key to government formation in a hung House. He would claim to have also been discussed as a possible PM after H D Deve Gowda resigned in April 1997. “It was an outside chance, but still a huge honour for a boy from a non-descript village of Khagaria,” he said.

Paswan was close to Jayaprakash Narayan. In the 1977 Lok Sabha elections, when Indira Gandhi was ousted as a byproduct of the JP Movement, Paswan called himself “a candidate of JP” in the Hajipur seat. He represented the constituency several times.

When unable to campaign in 2019 due to illness, he delivered an impassioned speech. The saying went that Hajipur was famous for two things — its bananas and Ram Vilas Paswan.

Paswan was never close to Lalu or Nitish, despite sharing a socialist background, as they fought for the same space at the Centre.

When he rejoined the NDA in 2014, 10 years after parting with it over the 2002 Gujarat riots, he had said he had no choice as the alliance had started giving more preference to Nitish. And while Paswan liked being in the limelight at the Centre, he ensured his hold in the state, remaining the third angle of Bihar politics after Lalu and Nitish.

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