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Ram Vilas Paswan: The Dalit kingmaker who lasted longer than many kings

The veteran Dalit leader died on Thursday at the age of 74 at a private hospital where he had recently undergone a heart operation

Ram Vilas Paswan
Critics at times mocked him as 'mausam vaigyanik' (weatherman) for his skill to navigate his ways into an alliance that would come to power after elections.

In politics people you support may forget you sometimes but if you attack a group, then they will never forget and forgive you, Ram Vilas Paswan once said in an informal get-together when someone prodded him on the secret of goodwill and warm equations he enjoyed across parties of contrasting ideological hues and communities.

This kernel of Paswan's political philosophy very much defined the Dalit leader who might not have ever been a king but as a kingmaker outlasted many kings in his illustrious career of more than five decades.

The veteran Dalit leader died on Thursday at the age of 74 at a private hospital where he had recently undergone a heart operation.

Paswan believed in making friends and investing in relationships and took pride in describing himself as a cementing force among, at times, warring allies.

Elected for the first time as an MLA in 1969 as a member of an anti-Congress front after quitting his job as a police official, he rose through the ranks of various socialist parties, which changed forms with a periodic interval, and became a leading Dalit face.

Born in Khagaria in Bihar in 1946, Paswan was elected to Lok Sabha eight times and was currently a Rajya Sabha member.

K C Tyagi of the Janatal Dal (United), who was with Paswan in the Charan Singh-led Lok Dal for years and described him as a socialist colleague of over 45 years, said the the Lok Janshakti Party founder played a key role in consolidating Dalits in north India and remained their voice.

He was one of the key ministers in the V P Singh government, which came to power in 1989, and pushed for implementing the Mandal Commission report, which recommended reservation for other backward classes, upending the pivot of politics, especially in Hindi-speaking states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh forever.

Paswan's simplicity and sincerity will remain exemplary, Tyagi said.

It is an ode to his politics that believed in building bridges across social or political divides that he was one of the most liked state leaders among the upper castes even as he drew his support mostly from Dalits, a group which at times shared antagonistic relations with the more prosperous communities due to a number of social and political reasons.

It is also a tribute to his worth as a politician and his warm acceptance across parties as contrasting in their ideologies as the Congress and the BJP that he was courted by arch rivals like Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Sonia Gandhi and served as a valuable minister in the BJP-led NDA as well as the Congress-led UPA governments.

When he quit the Vajpayee government due to his growing differences with the saffron party, he had also attacked the then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi but when he joined hands with the Modi-led BJP in 2014, he soon became a trusted colleague of the prime minister, especially on Dalit issues.

Critics at times mocked him as 'mausam vaigyanik' (weatherman) for his skill to navigate his ways into an alliance that would come to power after elections.

However, many believed it was an over simplification and noted that he was almost forced to quit the UPA in 2014 after Lalu Prasad's RJD thought that the Lok Janshakti Party should not be given more than three seats in the Lok Sabha polls.

His death, however, could not have come at a worse time for his 37-year-old son Chirag Paswan, who is now heading the party his father founded in 2000.

No longer in the ruling National Democratic Alliance in Bihar, Chirag Paswan is taking on Chief Minister Nitish Kumar's JD(U) as well as the opposition alliance in the assembly polls and will miss out on his father's experience of deftly navigating several such crises in the past.

Paswan's death may also spark an upsurge of support for his scion among his party's supporter and sympathisers.