Untouchable politics and politicians since 1956


Ram Vilas Paswan

Ram Vilas Paswan was elected to the Bihar State Assembly in 1969 as a member of die Samyutka Socialist Party. At the time he had considerable attraction to the Naxalite movement and no faith whatsoever in non-vio-lence.' In 1970 Paswan's confrontationist tactics led to his imprisonment for seven months in Bhagalpur Gaol (later infamous for the deliberate blinding of a number of prisoners). It was only with the advent of the 'JP Movement' that he came to accept the superiority of non-violence. Paswan became a close colleague of Jayaprakash in 1974, and he was of some importance m the movement by virtue of being both an MLA and also a Harijan (the term still used in Bihar). He was arrested at the begin-ning of the Emergency in 1975, and spent the whole of the Emergency in gaol. In the election of 1977 he won a reserved Parliamentary seat for the Janata Party, and with the exception of the period from 1984 tO 1989 has been a member of the Lok Sabha ever since. His party affiliation has changed with the many recompositions of the secular anti-Congress parties - he has variously been a member of the Janata Party, L.ok Dal and the Janata Dal. The three leaders he has acknowledged in this time are Charan Singh, Karpoori Thakur and V. P. Singh.

Ram Vilas Paswan had a tumultuous period as Minister for Labour and Welfare in the V. P. Singh Government of 1989-90. He says that this was the portfolio he wanted, because he could simultaneously do work for the Dalits and the Backward Castes (Interview: 27 October 1995). One of his accomplishments was implementation of the long-standing Dalit demand that Dr Ambedkar's portrait be placed in the main hall of Parliament alongside the other greats of the national struggle for Independence. He was also able to persuade the Government to extend reservation in employment to Scheduled Caste persons who had become Buddhists; rite primary beneficiary of this change is the Mahars.'7 But, of course, Paswan's most notorious action was to be intimately involved in the decision to adopt the Mandal Report that had lain on the table throughout the 1980s - it was commissioned by the previous Janata Government. This measure was of no value to the Scheduled Castes but of immense symbolic importance to the Backward Castes, particularly those of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The backlash it created among the upper castes was a major factor in the disintegration of the Government.

Paswan's strategy in opposition remained essentially the same as it was in Government. His object was to be seen as the national leader of the Dalits, while simultaneously promoting himself as a strong leader of other out-groups - the Backwards and also the Muslims, from whom he claims to have particularly strong personal support. To augment his appeal to the Dalits he established a separate organisation called the Dalit Sena. Apparently this was established as early as 1983, but Paswan invested more energy in it after Congress lost its hold on the north Indian Untouchable vote. Of course, the key image placed alongside Paswan on the posters and promotional material of the Dalit Sena is that of Ambedkar. On the walls of the public rooms of his New Delhi residence there are now more likenesses of Ambedkar than of anyone else. But Paswan has come late to Antbedkar. The influences on him have mostly derived from the Lohia socialist movement and from Jayaprakash Narayan. But clearly Ambedkar has become the key symbol for building any all-India Dalit constituency. Paswan cannot afford to surrender any part of the Ambedkar legacy to his principal rival, Kanshi Ram.

There have always been formidable obstacles in front of Ram Vilas Paswan. His own power base is limited: he is the pre-eminent leader of the Paswans, the second Untouchable community (behind the Chamars) of one State, Bihar. For the rest, since clearly he wishes to be Prime Minister, he has to stake his claim to be the overall leader of the dis-advantaged. One practical obstacle is that his spoken English is sufficient only for limited private conversation, and he therefore has no real capac-ity to build a mass following outside the Hindi belt. And, of course, there are a number of other competitors for the same constituency of the dis-advantaged. Finally, there remain deep questions as to whether an Untouchable will be acceptable as Prime Minister of India.

Paswan's party, die Janata Dal, has done badly in electoral terms since its triumph in 1989. Its results in the 1996 poll were also poor, but events played into Paswan's hands. After the failure of the BJP to gain defections from other parties, Deve Gowda was able to cobble together an unlikely coalition of leftist, centrist and regional parties to form a Government in 1996. Deve Gowda installed his Janata Dal partyman Ram Vilas as his principal political lieutenant. Always energetic, as Minister for Railways Paswan rapidly turned this classic source of patronage into an instrument to promote die interests of Dalits. He claims, for example, that he has been able to regularise the position of thousands of temporary sweepers in the railways (Interview: 19 March 1997). When Congress brought down Gowda's Government at the end of March 1997, Paswan was one of the names mentioned as a possible replacement Prime Minister. But the position went to an establishment politician, the then Foreign Minister I.K. Gujral.

In terms of actual policy Ram Vilas does not stand for a program greatly different from that of any of the other parties putting up for the Scheduled Caste vote. Despite his inclination towards radicalism, he recognises that structural change will now be difficult to bring about in the short run. It is too late for radical land reform, and the reforms that are possible have to be conducted with due regard to the stance of the courts (Paswan interview: 1995). The major way ahead is to train Dalits so that they have marketable skills. He sees it as important to extend the principle of reservation to the developing private sector. Whatever his youthful origins, Paswan is now far from a social revolutionary. He is against the assertion of any animus against the upper castes - his second wife is an upper-caste Sikh - and Brahmins in particular. Rather, his overall goal is to work towards ensuring that Dalits and other out-groups get their fair share of social goods.


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