Before joining hands with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for 2014 Lok Sabha election, Ram Vilas Paswan used his 2002 resignation from Atal Bihari Vajpayee Cabinet, as a protest against the party’s handling of Gujarat riots, to brush up his secular credentials. For 12 years, Paswan recounted two incidents of his decades-long career to question and shame secular parties while bolstering his own image as a widely-accepted leader.
The first was his 2002 resignation and second being his obstinate demand for a Muslim chief minister following the fractured mandate of 2005 Bihar elections. Both these episodes are embossed as turning points for changing the course of politics in Bihar as well as at the Centre.
A Patna University law graduate, Paswan was nurtured by socialist icons like Jayaprakash Narayan and Karpoori Thakur in his early years. In his long political career that started in the late 1960s, Paswan's career had many nadirs and zeniths. From his struggles during Indira Gandhi's Emergency to a record win in Lok Sabha polls to the ignominy of losing a Lok Sabha seat.
His first cabinet minister post was in the short-lived VP Singh government in 1989 and he has remained close to the party in power ever since. Having served in various positions, allying with various parties over the years, he was witness to - and was even a part of -- many historic twists and turns of Indian politics. However, his decisions in the early years of the new century changed the direction of politics in Bihar and India, and by extension the future of leaders like Lalu Yadav, Nitish Kumar and even Narendra Modi.
As Vajpayee campaigned in 2004 with the slogan of ‘Shining India’, Paswan had already predicted its fall two years ago when he quit the NDA government. Many did not see it as a prescient move, but as Lalu Prasad Yadav, his contemporary from Bihar, later quipped, Paswan was “sabse bade mausam vaigyanik (the biggest weather scientist there is)”.
The LJP leader was the only one who realised that the end of Vajpayee government was near. He switched sides, joining the Manmohan Singh government in 2004 as a Cabinet minister.
Manmohan was his fifth Prime Minister after VP Singh, HD Deve Gowda, IK Gujral and Vajpayee under whose government Paswan served as a minister, all from different parties.
Barely 8 months after the Congress-led UPA came to power, Bihar went to polls. This was Lalu Yadav’s biggest challenge in 15 years. It was also a big test for Paswan who had formed his own party - Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) - nearly five years ago which was contesting its first state election. As he had hoped, Paswan emerged as a king-maker with 29 seats in the 243-member assembly with no clear mandate for any party or alliance.
Paswan refused to support JDU-BJP’s NDA over its “communalism” and RJD over its “corruption”, and put forward a demand for a Muslim chief minister. He also presented himself as a potential chief ministerial candidate, saying he would “consider” it if other parties offered support. The long impasse led to rumours that a faction of LJP MLAs were to switch sides to the JD(U). Before any of that could happen, Governor Buta Singh recommended Governor’s rule and subsequent dissolution of the Assembly and another election.
Paswan’s dogmatic resolve to not support any of the alliances led to another election in six months and a clear mandate for NDA. Thus, began Nitish Kumar’s “sushasan” in Bihar and ensuing RJD's decline. The LJP has also been unable to repeat its performance ever since.
At the Centre, however, Paswan was part of the power corridor for 5 years before he lost his Lok Sabha seat in 2009. He still remained part of the UPA and a member of the Rajya Sabha, where he reached with a little help from the RJD in Bihar.
At every election meeting, from 2002 to 2014, he kept asserting his secular credentials while recounting how he had let go a Cabinet post to ‘protest Narendra Modi’s role in 2002 Gujarat riots’.
He, however, wanted to taste power again and knew that sticking with the Congress would not bring him any closer to it.
He then decided to ally with the BJP, who had just announced Modi as its Prime Ministerial candidate. Having lost Nitish Kumar’s JD(U), the BJP needed an ally.
Paswan had come full circle, from ditching the BJP for Modi to stitching an alliance with the Modi’s BJP. Together with Paswan’s LJP and Upendra Kushwaha’s RLSP, the NDA swept Bihar by winning 31 of the 40 seats in Lok Sabha and India’s “foremost weather forecaster” was back serving his sixth Prime Minister. He remained the only Cabinet Minister to serve both Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi.
While the tag of "mausam vaigyanik", a euphemism for opportunism, remained with him, it was seen by many as a testament to his political acumen. As a Dalit leader, despite aligning with the BJP, Paswan retained his secular image, often disagreeing with the BJP on several fractious issues.
While Paswan's insatiable hunger to remain close to the centre of power isn't unique to Indian politics, few weathervanes have been able to shift the directions of the political winds like he has - knowingly or unknowingly.
Ahamad Fuwad is Assistant News Editor of The Free Press Journal. The views expressed are personal.