Ram Vilas Paswan, the Dalit Leader Who Campaigned on a Cycle and Went on to Become a Kingmaker

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Ram Vilas Paswan, the Dalit Leader Who Campaigned on a Cycle and Went on to Become a Kingmaker

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

Veteran socialist leader and Union Minister Ram Vilas Paswan died on Thursday evening at a Delhi hospital where he was recuperating from heart surgery, his son has said. The Cabinet minister and founder of the Lok Janshakti party was 74.

On Saturday, his son, Chirag Paswan had announced that his father would need heart surgery due to an unforeseen medical situation. On Thursday evening, he tweeted that Paswan didn’t survive the procedure, sharing an old picture of the two of them.

An unstoppable political force, Paswan leaves behind a rich legacy, considering he was one of the few politicians to have been a part of almost every government since 1989. The Dalit leader has served six prime ministers, starting with V P Singh and ending with the current government, in which he was minister for Consumer Affairs and Food and Public Distribution.

Prior to that, he had served as a legislator in Bihar’s Assembly, after winning his first election by campaigning on a cycle which he bought with money his father gave him to buy a health drink.

Such was the man’s influence that Bihar’s former chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav once called him a “mausam vaigyanik” (weather scientist), because of his knack for sniffing out the winning side in elections. Back in 1977, this was evidenced by the fact that he actually entered the Guinness Book of World Records for winning an election with the largest ever margin, when he defeated the opposition in Majipur by over four lakh votes.

To make this statistic even more significant, that election was held just two years after he was jailed for protesting against Indira Gandhi’s emergency.

Paswan may have eventually lost his Guinness spot to P V Narasimha Rao in 1991, but his rise continued to be meteoric. In 2000, when he founded the Lok Janshakti party, he was already being hailed as the biggest Dalit leader in Bihar after Jagjivan Ram.

In 2004, Paswan allied with the Congress, following Sonia Gandhi’s “walk next-door” policy. But then, in 2014, once the tides had turned against the party, he was back with the BJP — with whom he had cut ties following the 2002 Gujarat riots — ensuring that he always held an important Cabinet portfolio.

But beyond his political prowess, Paswan was known by most to be an affable man, who always kept his doors open to the public, even as most politicians were gaining a reputation for being elusive. An old photograph that has been doing the rounds shows former “Bandit Queen”-turned-politician Phoolan Devi tying him a rakhi, while another shows him helping his wife fry pakoras for journalists who had arrived for a press conference.

In 1984, during the ant-Sikh pogrom, he reportedly gave refuge to a driver who was being chased by a mob.

As his son announces his death today, it marks a historic shifting point in Bihar politics, where Paswan’s party continues to hold five to seven per cent of the vote share, largely because of him.

Leaders across party lines paid tribute to Paswan. President Ram Nath Kovind called him the “voice of the oppressed”.

“The Dalit community lost of one its strong political voice today,” Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said.

Home Ministry officials have said the veteran politician will be accorded with a state funeral, and the national flag will fly at half-mast in all state capitals on Friday. His last rites will be performed in Patna on Saturday.

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