What Paswan’s exit means for politics
The LJP leader’s departure is a reflection of how the old is broken and the new is yet to take root, both in Bihar and within Dalit politicsUpdated: Oct 10, 2020, 18:18 IST
The death of Ram Vilas Paswan and the decision of the Lok Janashakti Party (LJP) to contest the Bihar elections separately — while being a part of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) at the Centre — will have implications for both democratic politics in Bihar and Dalit politics in north India.
First up, why did Paswan matter? His party is a minor ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which won six seats in the last Lok Sabha elections — primarily because of its association with Narendra Modi. Paswan himself never transcended into a pan-Bihar, or even a pan-Dalit leader. He may have had the ability to independently win elections, but his party — on its own — was rarely able to turn into the swing force it so aspired to become.
Yet, Paswan was an important addition in any alliance. Do recall that when the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government was fighting the 2004 elections on an “India Shining” platform, and most observers had predicted the victory of the incumbent, Sonia Gandhi walked from her house — 10 Janpath — to her old neighbour’s house — Paswan lived on 12, Janpath — to build an opposition alliance. The rest is history, with the United Progressive Alliance coming into being after the elections, displacing the BJP. Paswan occupied a key spot in the new Manmohan Singh Cabinet. And it was when Paswan decided to back the BJP under Modi in the run-up to the 2014 elections that political circles realised that Modi’s victory was possibly imminent. Modi’s extremely personal and warm tweets after his death, recognising Paswan’s value as a colleague, was testament to his importance in the NDA government.
He mattered — and his allies and adversaries recognised this — due to two reasons. Paswan symbolically represented the addition of the senior most Dalit mainstream political figure in active politics (he first entered the Bihar assembly in 1969), to any political coalition — and this was important to send a message of inclusion, broad base one’s platform, and signal to Dalits that they would occupy an important place. Second, more substantially, Paswan had a loyal base in his home state of Bihar.
Paswan’s final wish was cementing the position of his son, Chirag, in Bihar and national politics. The LJP recognised that it would not be able to play a significant role in Bihar politics if the Janata Dal (United) and the BJP won comfortably. It needed to enhance its bargaining power — and the calculation was that this may come from contesting separately, winning a dozen-plus seats, and in a hung assembly, returning to the NDA, but in a position to extract a share of power. The fact that there is a strong school of thought in the BJP which has begun seeing Nitish Kumar as a liability, and wants to have its own chief minister in Bihar, has only encouraged the LJP to take this gamble.
But how this will play out depends on a set of questions. Will Paswan’s death deprive the LJP of its star campaigner and erode its ability to win, or will it generate a sympathy factor and, in fact, expand its base? Will the BJP’s loyal votes shift to the LJP candidate where the LJP is in direct competition with the JD(U) and enable their victory, or will the BJP’s base stick to the the JD(U), which is their formal ally, or will the split in the NDA votes between the JD(U) and the LJP actually help the Mahagatbandhan candidates of either the Rashtriya Janata Dal or the Congress or, in select seats, the Left forces win? Will the LJP, given its limited base, actually make a difference at all to the overall outcome?
While in the immediate context, the answers to these questions will determine Chirag Paswan’s political value, in the longer-term, the LJP is playing hardball because it sees a possible vacuum in a post Nitish Kumar political landscape. The BJP is dominant but does not have a strong local leader; the Rashtriya Janata Dal appears to be a pale shadow of itself; and the Congress remains marginal. The ambitious Chirag Paswan wants to become grow beyond his father’s carefully-cultivated Dalit base and is positioning himself as a pan-Bihar leader based on sub-nationalism. There is a hitch though. His strength on the ground does not match this ambition. And whether he will be able to put in the work and expand his base and introduce a new political agenda over the next decade, or like many other dynasts, bank on only his father’s legacy will be key to Chirag Paswan and the LJP’s future. Paswan’s death and the LJP’s gambit also need to be seen in the context of a churn in Dalit politics in general.
Despite a strong Ambedkarite critique of the BJP’s approach to Dalits, the fact is that in north India in particular, large segments of Dalit sub-castes have thrown in their lot with the BJP. The Congress still has a Dalit base, but this is nowhere close to the support that it enjoyed in the past. Mainstream Dalit politics itself has weakened. Mayawati has now lost four elections in a row in Uttar Pradesh — the 2012 assembly elections, the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the 2017 assembly polls and the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. This has happened at a time when, actually, there is rising Dalit consciousness, expansion of the Dalit middle class, the emergence of young Dalits who will not accept older hierarchies, and where demands of representation, justice, equity and progress have sharpened.
It is this vacuum that a range of Dalit leaders are hoping to fill over the next decade, from a Jignesh Mevani in Gujarat to a Chandrashekhar Azad in Uttar Pradesh to a Chirag Paswan in Bihar to the more senior Prakash Ambedkar in Maharashtra. But who will eventually fill this space is an open question and subject to a range of variables, including the larger trajectory of national politics, the interplay between the Hindutva project and Dalits, whether the vastly heterogeneous Dalit vote continues to fragment or consolidates behind select entities, and state-specific social dynamics.
Paswan may have only been one actor in the crowded Indian political landscape. But his departure is actually a reflection of how the old is broken and the new is yet to take root, both in Bihar and within the broad domain of Dalit politics.