The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Paswan role puzzle in poll

Patna, Feb. 19: Never fire at the king; but if you do, make sure that he is killed. Arun Jaitley, senior BJP leader, recalled the lesson from British history and wondered if Ram Vilas Paswan had bitten off more than he could chew.

With barely four days to go for the crucial third phase of polling in Bihar ' elections will be held in 91 seats ' it is still not clear if Paswan will have the last laugh or if he has closed all options for himself.

From the time he declared that he would urge the Congress to instal a Muslim chief minister to his statement that he himself is the strongest contender for the chair, Paswan has managed to give confusing signals. In between, he asserted that he would favour President's rule for two years in case of a hung House. The last straw has been his statement that even chief minister Rabri Devi would lose her security deposit in Raghopur.

The Congress can hardly gloss over the fact that the UPA government is heavily dependent on the support of the 64 Left members and the 25 Rashtriya Janata Dal members in the Lok Sabha. Paswan with his four MPs appears eminently dispensable. In any case, the Congress can hardly afford to offend Laloo Prasad Yadav unless he is utterly decimated in Bihar.

That is why Paswan is increasingly becoming an embarrassment for the Congress. Not even the most strident opponent of the RJD believes Rabri Devi will lose the election at Raghopur. The fact that Paswan made the statement, therefore, does appear to betray nervousness in the Lok Janshakti Party camp. This nervousness was betrayed by another senior LJP functionary yesterday, who complained about the Election Commission's alleged failure to conduct a fair election.

Paswan has conducted an energetic campaign and has evoked admiration from even his rivals. As dusk falls, he gets down from the helicopter and hits the road till late in the evening, telling everyone how he has arrived to deliver the state from the nightmare of Laloo Prasad-Rabri raj. A fine orator, he appears to have influenced his audience as well. But his trouble seems to be his poor credibility.

That Paswan has been a central minister since 1996 virtually without interruption ' barring when he voluntarily resigned after the Gujarat riots ' and the fact that he has shared a cosy relationship with senior BJP leaders is something the RJD has exploited to the hilt.

What's more important, he is seen to be poaching into the anti-Laloo Prasad space in the state. With his strident attacks on Laloo Prasad, there is apprehension even among his allies that in some seats he might end up hurting the prospects of forces ranged against the ruling dispensation.

There is also nervousness in the Congress, which believes Paswan can join hands with the NDA if necessary. BJP leaders are also convinced that despite his rhetoric, he would join hands with them if his political survival depends on it.

In politics, nobody rules out the possibility of Paswan and Nitish Kumar joining hands sans the BJP or, what appears far-fetched at present, an arrangement by which Laloo Prasad returns to Bihar as chief minister and Paswan gets his coveted railway ministry.

While there is near unanimity that he will play spoiler and most of his candidates will not win themselves but ensure that others lose, there is no way of predicting how many seats the LJP will bag. The most optimistic projection is that it will end up with anything between 20 and 30 seats.

The question in Bihar, therefore, is whether Paswan will emerge as kingmaker with his 30 MPs or whether the RJD will manage to win around 90 seats and form a government, with about 15 seats likely to be won by Left parties and about the same number by the Congress.

In this hypothetical scenario, he may not have much difficulty winning back the 10 or more RJD rebels who, too, are expected to win seats in the Assembly.

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