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- Paswan’s dilemma as he runs into a vow of another Guinness ‘feat’

S for social justice. S for secular. S for son.

Ram Vilas Paswan is locked in a battle with himself.

One of modern India’s longest serving parliamentarians, the 68-year-old Dalit leader is caught in the compulsion of having to seek votes for himself while invoking the name of Narendra Modi.

Paswan, who proudly wears his badge of a crusader for social justice and secular values, famously quit the Atal Bihari Vajpayee cabinet after the 2002 Gujarat pogrom. During the 1984 anti-Sikh killings in Delhi, he had saved and sheltered several Sikh taxi drivers who came under attack at a cab stand.

Today, with his political future and relevance at stake, the Lok Janshakti Party leader has had to fight a battle within — of justifying an alliance with the BJP and accepting Modi as the supreme leader.

He had waited and weighed the options before taking the call. Word is that it was his son Chirag, a one-film actor, who forced his father’s hand, twisted his politics and drove Paswan into embracing Modi.

What had been a dilemma for Paswan is now a dilemma for Hajipur, the constituency across the Ganga from Patna that he has nurtured since 1977 and which he represented during seven of his eight Lok Sabha terms.

He lost only in 1984 and 2009, swept away by a Rajiv Gandhi wave and a Nitish Kumar surge, respectively. Paswan is now a Rajya Sabha member from Bihar.

Two of his Lok Sabha election victories — by 424,545 votes in 1977 and 504,448 votes in 1989 — came with margins that got him into the Guinness World Records. He held on to his record till 2004, when Anil Basu of the CPM won the Arambagh seat in Bengal by over 5.92 lakh votes.

Hajipur is today vertically divided on the question of supporting Paswan, whose grip over the area was once so strong that he didn’t even need to campaign.

“Like Dhritarashtra, he is blinded by his love for his son,” says Fayaz Ahmed Khan, 48, a farmer and social worker in Koba Mohabbatpur, a village of around 1,200 voters in the Lalganj Assembly segment, about 100km north of Patna.

“He has switched camps to suit his needs; he cannot be relied on any more,” adds Khan, sitting on the verandah of his one-storey house.

The village — Khan says it has been inhabited continuously since the time of Sher Shah Suri, the 16th-century ruler — has a mixed population of Muslims and backward castes who have lived in harmony for decades.

“We want development, but we want peace and harmony too,” adds Rajdeo Choudhary, another resident. “We are united in voting against Paswan.”

At the Raja Pakar Assembly segment, around 30km away, the expressions of anger are sharper.

“We will defeat Paswan by a world-record margin,” says Shatrughan Prasad Singh Yadav in Delphorwa, a Yadav stronghold that hit the headlines in September 2007 when some of its residents lynched 10 alleged thieves.

Paswan, Delphorwa residents say, is an “opportunist” who has chosen an alliance to serve his interests.

“He has served five Prime Ministers,” says Prakash Yadav. “Who else but an opportunist can do that?”

The Hajipur Lok Sabha constituency, in Vaishali district, has six Assembly segments: Hajipur, Lalganj, Mahua, Raja Pakar, Raghopur and Mahnar.

Raja Pakar, Raghopur and Mahnar have sizeable Yadav and Muslim populations who say they will vote for Lalu Prasad. The Rashtriya Janata Dal has left the Hajipur seat to the Congress, which has fielded Sanjiv Prasad Toni.

“Our votes will go to Toni,” says Suraj Prasad Yadav at Raja Pakar. As in many other parts of Bihar, the Janata Dal (United) isn’t part of the discourse.

Outgoing MP Ram Sundar Das, a 93-year-old who was chief minister of Bihar for 10 months in the turbulent Janata Party years, defeated Paswan in 2009. This time he is paying for the “marginalisation” that his boss Nitish Kumar seems to be suffering from.

“Roads and power he has given us,” concedes Sanjay Yadav, acknowledging the work done by Nitish. “But corruption is rampant. Yadavs are humiliated by the officials. Nitish has failed to check any of this.”

Paswan is banking on the Assembly segments of Hajipur, Mahua and parts of Lalganj. What gives him a very slight advantage is that Muslims make up only about 10 per cent of the electorate in Hajipur, much lower compared with many other constituencies.

The support for Paswan — and for Modi — is palpable at the high-school ground in Salimpur village in the Hajipur Assembly segment ahead of Paswan’s Saturday evening rally along with the BJP’s Nand Kishore Yadav, the leader of the Opposition in the Assembly.

The Hajipur Assembly segment has a mix of upper caste and Dalit voters from the Paswan community — a potentially winning combination for the BJP-Lok Janshakti alliance.

The crowd appears thin as second and third-rung leaders speak — Paswan is a good 40 minutes late. Around 5.20pm, the cheers go up amid cries of “Dharti goonje aasman (from earth to the heavens reverberates the cry), Ram Vilas Paswan” as fingers point to a red helicopter hovering above.

It lands about 100 metres from the podium in a thick haze of dust. A swarm of people rushes forward. Paswan looks exhausted. He is irritable and fends off supporters eager to garland him. He wants to keep his speech short, he says.

If Nand Kishore’s speech before him was all about Modi, Paswan is almost apologetic as he speaks about the alliance.

“I have treated Hajipur as my mother,” he says, and, like a son who may have made a few mistakes, he should be pardoned and not driven away like he was in 2009.

“I have always stayed with you,” he says and lists his contributions: the East Central Railway headquarters, the National Institute of Pharmaceutical Education and Research….

Paswan is critical of Nitish but is soft on Lalu Prasad, aware that he needs Yadav support.

“I appeal to Laluji to withdraw from the contest here,” he says. “It’s a reserved seat and one backward caste leader should make that sacrifice for another.”

He doesn’t even mention Sonia Gandhi or Rahul, his neighbours in New Delhi for decades, in contrast to Modi who has been dishing out a daily dose of attacks on “ma-beta”.

Paswan understands the dilemma of his voters and cites how he had quit the Vajpayee cabinet over “Godhra-kand”.

“But I remain committed to social justice and secularism. When people get jobs at the railway office, nobody asks whether one is a Hindu or a Muslim,” he says.

And then comes his moment of truth. “The youths want Modi. Chirag Paswan wants Modi. He told me ‘Papa, we must tie up with Modi’. I realised that the mood is for a change,” Paswan explains, content to let the son take the credit for the alliance.

Ten-minute speech over, Paswan heads for a road show in the Hajipur area in the fading light of the setting sun.

In the last lap of his political career, he now has to ponder if the son hasn’t caused his beliefs to set as well.

• Hajipur votes on May 7