The rise and fall of Ram Vilas Paswan
I got to know Ram Vilas Paswan soon after V P Singh announced in the Lok Sabha the acceptance of Mandal Commission recommendations on 7 August, 1990, causing a huge uproar of noisy and often violent protests from across party lines and in particular the upper caste youth of North India, or shall we say the Cow land.
Before that even while covering the ruling Janata Dal then as a reporter for the weekly Sunday Mail, I was vaguely aware of Paswan as someone who won as a Janata Dal candidate in that anti-Rajiv Gandhi Bofors wave with the highest margin of votes and who on becoming a young Labour minister in V P Singh government shifted into 12, Janpath, next to the residence of the then Congress president and outgoing Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Outgoing Urban Development Minister Mohsina Kidwai had vacated this bungalow. Ram Vilas and family, so identified with 12, Janpath, that he did several political somersaults, to retain that strategically located prestigious house.
Maybe if Prime Minister Narendra Modi fulfills Paswan’s younger brother Pashupati Paras’ desire to reward him by inducting him into the Union cabinet to fill up the vacancy created by Paswan’s death, for migrating to the NDA camp with other four MPs of Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), he too may be allotted 12 Janpath. Even then, Chirag and his mother Mrs Reena Paswan, might have to vacate the bungalow sooner than later and shift to some smaller accommodation on North or South Avenue. Under the Urban Development ministry rules Chirag is not yet entitled to a type VIII bungalow. And in Modi regime the privilege of enjoying the comfort of a Lutyens’ Type VIII bungalow comes for a price. If you’re of any use to Modi then even a minister of State like Kirren Rijiju gets to live in the bungalow occupied by former Defence Minister of India A K Antony. On the other hand, Ajit Singh was evicted out of his 14 Tughlak Road house occupied first by his father Chaudhry Charan Singh and then him presumably since 1977 when Charan Singh became the Home Minister in Morarji Desai government in 1977. But the BJP did not like Ajit Singh going over to the Congress after the 2009 elections and evicted him unceremoniously soon as they came to power.
Mandal threw up two bright young and energetic leaders or shall we say three in the V P Singh government. Paswan, Sharad Yadav and also Nitish Kumar, all three first time ministers and that too directly in the Centre. Two of them Nitish and Sharad belonged to the Devi Lal camp of Janata Dal and Paswan too came from the socialist stock which had later merged into Chaudhary Charan Singh’s Lok Dal and still later into Chaudhary Devi Lal’s parallel Lok Dal. In effect all three Paswan, Sharad and Nitish and Lalu Prasad, heading the Bihar government as its chief minister were a product of Jai Prakash Narayan’s Sampurna Kranti movement and left a lasting imprint on our impressionable minds then as ideal revolutionary politicians.
Almost immediately after V P Singh announced acceptance of the Mandal Commission report, awarding 27 per cent reservation in Central All India services to the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), Devi Lal held a rally in which for the first time Kanshi Ram appeared on his platform and Devi Lal rejected Mandal for excluding Jats from it. Kanshi Ram the great messiah of Dalits and all deprived sections of the population stood with Devi Lal to effectively oppose the Mandal Commission. It must have been on or around 23 September, 1990 the anniversary of the signing of Poona Pact by Dr B R Ambedkar when Paswan and Sharad held a counter rally of the Dalits and OBCs at the Boat Club lawns and the response was phenomenal. Paswan thence emerged as a champion of the Dalits and backwards and became a household name in Delhi and national media.
That government did not last long and fell on 10 November, 1990 leading to a brief interregnum of Rajiv Gandhi supported Chandra Shekhar government for four months and then the mid-term elections of May, 1991 wherein Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated, completely changing the course of Indian history. In the immediate aftermath of the polls in which the Congress led by P V Narasimha Rao returned to power, Ram Vilas Paswan emerged as the most trusted lieutenant of V P Singh because neither Sharad nor Nitish Kumar could return immediately to the 10th Lok Sabha. And a militant Paswan was active and agile to take on the BJP’s saffron clad Sadhu, Sadhvi brigade occupying the Lok Sabha benches, on each Hindutva issue, endearing himself to people like me sitting in the Press gallery listening to Paswan’s counter attacks against the noisy BJP members.
Janata Dal parliamentary party office in room number 4, Parliament House became our second home, chatting up Paswan. Sharad and Nitish returned to the Lower House after a couple of months in by elections from Bihar because their elections had been countermanded by politically hostile pro-active Election Commissioner. Till then there was only one man at the top in Nirvachan Sadan and that was T N Seshan.
Sharad Yadav and Nitish Kumar too became our (meaning me and Smita Gupta the then Bureau chief of The Independent) friends and sources for daily stories. Initially though we found Sharad a little distant. Perhaps because in the runup to the 9th Lok Sabha there were news reports in a section of the media alluding some sex scandal involving his Feroze Shah Road residence. Since then, Sharad would be wary and suspicious of women journalists till he had ascertained that they had not been set up to trap him.
In 1993 V P Singh quit his position as Leader of the Janata Dal parliamentary party and went on a nationwide travel to spread awareness about the need for reservation for the OBCs. Before resigning he sought to make Ram Vilas the leader of Janata Dal parliamentary party. But Sharad, Nitish and at their instance Lalu sitting in Patna together resisted the move and Paswan could not inherit V P Singh’s mantle. By 1994-5, Nitish with George, Hari Kishore Singh, Syed Shahabuddin, Chandrajit Yadav and others left the Janata Dal to float the Samata Party. Still in 1996 an anti-BJP front named the United Front formed the government with the then Karnataka chief minister and a JD leader, H D Deve Gowda as the Prime Minister. But since Deve Gowda was then not a member of either of the two Houses of Parliament and later returned to Parliament as a Rajya Sabha member Paswan became the Leader of the House . Also, he bagged the prized Railways portfolio.
In the 1994 Bihar assembly elections despite Seshan’s Brahmanical animus against Lalu that resulted in the elections carrying on for six months and Lalu ceasing to be even caretaker chief minister in the interregnum, in the end he still won overwhelmingly. His political competitors even within the Janata Dal now became even more envious of Lalu emerging as an invincible leader of Mandal forces and started conspiring to displace him. Lalu’s biggest enemy the BJP started besieging him soon after, with trumped up charges against him on the fraudulent fodder scam. Even as a Janata Dal led United Front government was ruling at the Centre, the CBI was let loose on Lalu to forcibly eject him from the chief minister’s chair. It is said that Deve Gowda guided by Paswan gave a free hand to the then CBI Director Joginder Singh who later exposed his saffron proclivity when the RSS invited him to address its most important annual event the Vijay Dashmi Divas celebrations at Resham Bagh, Nagpur. Janata Dal circles were agog with the gossip that Joginder Singh was chosen to head the CBI at the instance of Paswan who nursed the secret desire to rule Bihar by displacing Lalu as its chief minister.
Both Nitish Kumar and Ram Vilas Paswan couldn’t stomach Lalu’s rise whom they perceived as a non-serious “joker” towering above them politically like a colossal by his deft handling of post Mandal situation. While Nitish having walked out of Janata Dal with George Fernandes and other anti-Mandal MPs to form the Samata Party, collaborating with the BJP and his dear friend and trusted ally Sushil Modi, to challenge Lalu’s supremacy, had to struggle for nearly 15 years before he and his dear saffron friends could finally vanquish Lalu, Paswan acted surreptitiously. Meanwhile after Deve Gowda became the Prime Minister an element of distrust developed between the Prime Minister and the then Congress president Sitaram Kesri, also from Bihar and an ally of Lalu Prasad because even though Rao had soon been replaced as Congress president, Gowda pursued Rao’s agenda to fix Kesri. Paswan used this opportunity to fix Lalu. Paswan had the knack of winning the trust and confidence of each Prime Minister he worked with and so had the best the equation with Deve Gowda. That’s why he, fully knowing Joginder Singh’s proximity to the Sangh, colluded with the BJP, to appoint Singh as the CBI Director. with whom Deve Gowda too was acquainted when Joginder was posted in Karnataka at one stage.
But while Kesri withdrew Congress support to Deve Gowda, he also offered to continue his party’s support to UF government provided they replaced Deve Gowda with another leader acceptable to him. Thereafter a meeting of the United Front coordination committee comprising of all the parties was held at Andhra Bhawan hosted by the then Andhra chief minister and Telugu Desam leader Nara Chandrababu Naidu. The night before the announcement of the decision to elect Inder Kumar Gujral to replace Deve Gowda, I with Ajaz Ashraf went to see Paswan at his bungalow and Paswan appeared exuberant. Why? Because he was seriously hoping that he could emerge as the consensus candidate and be sworn in as the next Prime Minister of India. He didn’t much care how long this government would last for he quoted former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar how becoming Prime Minister even for a day would entail such huge lifetime perks of type VIII bungalow in Lutyens’ zone, a SPG cover for all the family members and all the accompanied paraphernalia.
However once Gujral became the Prime Minister it took him no time to endear himself to Gujral as well. Incidentally Abdul Khaliq who has remained loyal to Chirag Paswan when all other LJP MPs deserted him, was Paswan’s discovery from Rail Bhawan where he was the OSD to Paswan as Railway minister. The United Front was a real khichdi Sarkar from the beginning comprising of disparate forces like the DMK and Tamil Manila Congress from Tamill Nadu led by G K Moopanar, who, along with P Chidambaram, had broken away from the Congress to spite Narasimha Rao. V P Singh was widely perceived as the leader of this Front but there were any number in and outside the Front, including Narasimha Rao who won’t brook a second term for V P Singh as the Prime Minister. Karunanidhi’s insistent choice was V P Singh. V P Singh’s choice to lead this front was Jyoti Basu and while Basu and the then General secretary of the CPI (M) Harkishan Singh Surjeet were agreeable to the proposal and most other constituents of the UF too seemed willing, the CPM central committee led chiefly by E M S Namboodripad put its foot down and rejected outright the proposal to make Jyoti Basu the PM. Both Lalu and Mulayam were in this Front and both had good number of MPs in their kitty, But in those days there was tremendous rivalry between the two Yadav leaders. Lalu had more than double number of MPs in the 11th Lok Sabha than Mulayam and would not brook Mulayam as the PM. With Fodder scam sword hanging over his head, Lalu was automatically out of the race. In the first round, Deve Gowda became the consensus candidate, also because for the first time 14 MPs had been elected from Karnataka under Deve Gowda who just two years back had become the state chief minister. But with Gowda out, the UF again faced a leadership crisis and with Karunanidhi opposed to Moopanar, the final choice fell on Gujral. Gujral made no change to the composition of Deve Gowda’s cabinet which had for the first time two CPI stalwarts Chaturanan Mishra and the legendary CPI general secretary Indrajit Gupta as the country’s Home Minister, who continued to reside in one room of Western Court which he had occupied for decades as a member of Parliament.
Paswan’s dexterity lay in the fact that he managed to get close to Gujral too within no time. Meanwhile the CBI was closing in on Lalu Yadav who was also then the Janata Dal president and Bihar chief minister. He had made his best friend and confidant Sharad Yadav the Working president of the party to look after day to day affairs in Delhi, since he was preoccupied with Patna. Seshan as the Election Commissioner put the Janata Dal on notice setting a deadline for holding party elections, otherwise to derecognise the ruling party. At this point Sharad who was licking his wounds for not becoming a UF minister because of the Hawala case still pending against him, was holding tight to this presidential position, while Lalu realising that the CBI was closing in on him and he might have to relinquish the chief minister’s post pleaded with Sharad and the party to let him continue as the JD president but Sharad would have none of it and now Deve Gowda, Paswan and other Lalu baiters in the Janata Dal came together to fell Lalu. The night before that crucial meeting Lalu went to Paswan’s house and was there for a couple of hours. Paswan sneaked out of the backdoor to avoid meeting and committing anything to Lalu. Finally a dejected Lalu left after midnight, Paswan told some of us the next day when Lalu announced splitting the Janata Dal and forming his Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), taking away 16 of the 20 Janata Dal MPs from Bihar.
Immediately after that Lalu was made to quit Bihar CM’s post and arrested by a vengeful and dubious CBI officer named U N Biswas. Soon thereafter the Gujral government too did not last long. Mid-term elections were held in 1998 bringing to power Atal Bihari Vajpayee led NDA government with the BJP at the helm. In Bihar while Lalu released on bail, led his RJD to a resounding victory winning another 20 seats, this time against his erstwhile party, the rump Janata Dal which was wiped out in Bihar. Sharad Yadav lost to Lalu in Madhepura. Ram Vilas Paswan was the lone winner from the rump Janata Dal. Even in Karnataka Deve Gowda and only two others returned on Janata Dal ticket. But this first NDA government too did not last long with AIADMK leader and Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa withdrawing support because the Central government failed to scuttle in time all the corruption cases slapped on her by Subramaniam Swamy, who by then had joined Jayalalithaa and became her trusted political adviser.
By 1999 when the NDA returned to power riding on the nationwide Kargil wave, Lalu’s party was wiped out in Bihar and now all three Paswan, Sharad and Nitish were back as colleagues in this government which almost completed its full term in 2004. Paswan of course quit the NDA and resigned his ministership a little earlier citing the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat under the chief ministership of Narendra Modi. Privately he admitted to my friend G Chandra Sekar then of UNI, his disenchantment with the Vajpayee government for depriving him of the high-profile Communications portfolio and relegating him to the inconsequential Mining ministry. Incidentally though Sharad too was unhappy with the Civil Aviation portfolio being taken away, he stuck on. As for Nitish, he was always the apple of BJP eye and thus aided Modi’s endeavour to vitiate the Sabarmati Express burning report by sitting on the passenger list of the hapless S-6 sleeper coach which became Modi’s alibi for the Gujarat massacre.
- One remarkable thing about these socialist politicians is they change their friends in the media along with their professed ideology. So, when Nitish Kumar walked out of NDA in 2013 protesting BJP’s decision to field Modi as the PM candidate, he called me, Zafar Agha, Seema Mustafa and such “secular” journalists to non-vegetarian lunch to brandish his secular credentials. Similarly, Paswan who had forgotten all his old-time friends suddenly started calling me, Chandra Sekhar, Smita Gupta and such others for his press conferences. By the year 2000 Paswan had broken away from JD-U and formed his own Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) which aligned with the Congress and Lalu’s RJD to contest the 2004 elections wherein the RJD won 24 seats while LJP secured four including Paswan’s own from Hajipur and brother Ramchandra Paswan from Rosera because of joining a secular RJD led alliance. But when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gave the Railway portfolio to Lalu Prasad, who proved his competence by making the Railways profitable for the first and last time since independence, Paswan was most upset and annoyed. Never mind the fact that he managed to return to the 14th Lok Sabha with three more MPs only because of aligning with Lalu Prasad. But when Lalu returned with 24 MPs and naturally he was therefore a big force in the 14th Lok Sabha an envious Paswan could not stomach Lalu being given more importance than him. Not that he was badly off. The Prime Minister gave him two important ministries, Steel and Chemicals and Fertilisers.
- So, in 2005 Bihar Assembly elections he sabotaged the RJD prospect of forming a government by refusing to align with “a fodder scam tainted” corrupt and discredited Lalu Prasad, forgetting that barely a year back he had bounced back into Bihar politics only thanks to Lalu. In the process, he paved the way for the rise and final crowning of Nitish Kumar, his traditional enemy as the Bihar chief minister which post Nitish holds till date.
- In spite of Sonia Gandhi fully supporting Lalu Prasad, the Brahmanical Congress party in Bihar has all along been averse to Lalu and but for Sonia’s pressure they would have preferred Nitish or Paswan to Lalu any day and as the elections to the 15th Lok Sabha approached in 2009, the Congress jacked up its demand so high, much beyond its ability to win, that it became impossible for Lalu to accommodate the Congress party. Instead Lalu, ignoring the past slight, offered a large number of seats to Paswan’s LJP. Eventually the anti BJP forces were decimated. RJD, including Lalu himself won only four seats, Congress only one the Kishanganj seat and Paswan himself lost to Ram Sunder Dass of JD-U. For nearly a year Ram Vilas Paswan was not a member of any House of Parliament and consequently he might have had to vacate his 12 Janpath bungalow. Then again Lalu came to his rescue and sent him upto Rajya Sabha with the support of RJD MLAs in 2010.
By the time the 2014 elections under the leadership of Narendra Modi came, Lalu Prasad had been disqualified as a member of Parliament convicted of fodder scam. He had not yet gone to jail. But on the other hand, Paswan’s immediate concern was to see his son Chirag Paswan, a failed Bollywood actor, settle in politics. The then BJP president and Modi’s trouble shooter Amit Shah was out wooing all and sundry to hop on to the Modi bandwagon which Paswan readily did. Some said then that it was at the instance of his son Chirag who counselled that with Lalu convicted RJD was a sinking ship and thus to tie up with Modi instead and so Paswan betrayed Lalu once more when Lalu most needed his support. Of course, he got a good deal in return with him, his son, Chirag, brother Ramchandra Paswan and three others all entering the Lok Sabha on LJP ticket.
By 2019 Paswan was not in good health and therefore preferred not to contest the Lok Sabha polls and so Modi sent him to the Rajya Sabha and also made him a minister. In his second term as PM. But by 2020 with Bihar elections approaching Chirag became a bit too ambitious. Paswan was alive though he was not active anymore and therefore it can be easily assumed that Chirag broke away from the JD-U led NDA in Bihar assembly polls under the guidance of father Ram Vilas. He came a cropper and could secure the victory of only one MLA who too crossed over to JD-U. It was said in political circles then that Chirag had the tacit support of the Bihar BJP leadership which wanted to become the leading party in the NDA and thus stake claim to the chief minister’s post. Paswan died in the midst of the Bihar assembly election campaign. And eventually BJP did better than the JD-U, but of course the RJD won maximum number of seats and even its alliance partners in the Left did pretty well.
However, Modi was miffed with Chirag for having scuttled his endeavour to defeat the RJD decisively. Modi hoped Chirag would realise his limitations that he is no Ram Vilas. But Chirag on the other hand was hoping that with the BJP having supported him all along he would enjoy the same pre-eminence that his father did. But Modi is an impatient man and brooks no nonsense and so after a while the LJP MPs led by Chirag’s uncle Pashupati Paras and cousin Prince Raj have made their peace with Modi and Nitish and Paras is working at getting the ministerial berth vacant on Paswan’s death. Chirag has hinted, and it seems he has not much of a choice but to realign with the RJD, and Lalu being a magnanimous leader is likely to take Chirag under his wings too.