| Paswan with Meira Kumar: weighing his options
Like a master spy who never leaves any trace, a master politician twists and manoeuvres events to work in his favour, without being seen to do so.
A front ranking Dalit leader and a former Union minister, Ram Vilas Paswan,in his latest political move in Bihar however, leaves too many traces. It is obvious that he wants to play a Mayavati in Bihar. Paswan is the second most popular Dalit and backward caste leader after Laloo Prasad Yadav. He controls Paswan votes and is acceptable to a section of the middle castes. Having quit the National Democratic Alliance, Paswan is struggling to eke out a new identity in Bihar with his Lok Janshakti Party.
Last week, when Paswan announced that he would launch a biswasghaat yatra (a rally against betrayal) to protest against the political compromise of the Uttar Pradesh chief minister, Mayavati, on Dalit issues and her rally in Lucknow, addressed by the deputy prime minister, L.K. Advani, he was merely trying to take a high moral ground. He seemed to claim that his brand of Dalit politics is more loyal than Mayavati’s to B.R. Ambedkar’s principles. But even he knows that he is not doing anything different from what Mayavati did in UP.
Like Mayavati, Paswan has seized upon the bargaining power that the word Dalit holds for his brand of politics. Instead of addressing discrimination and oppression in the caste-ridden social order in which Dalits are caught even today, Paswan wants to bring them into a convenient political alliance which will help him ride into power.
If Mayavati had her rival in caste politics in the form of Mulayam Singh Yadav, Paswan too has a formidable Laloo Yadav to fight. Paswan’s immediate handicap is his flirtation with the Bharatiya Janata Party, having entered into a pre-poll alliance with it in UP.
There appears to be a favourable ground for Paswan in Bihar in that the Dalit leadership of this state is in disarray. Caste groups like Paswans, Mushahars and Nishads who come under annexure 1 of the Constitution are rethinking their strategy after being betrayed by the ruling Muslim-Yadav caste combine of the Rashtriya Janata Dal. The Dalits in Bihar, hounded by upper-caste armies and exploited by the relatively affluent middle castes and the manuwadis, had once rallied behind Laloo Yadav because of their need for protection. But since then, they have only got further marginalized by the erratic land reform measures of the Rabri Devi government. In some villages of north Bihar, dire poverty has been forcing the Mushahars to sell their daughters.
On the eve of the 1999 parliamentary polls, the Dalit leaders were encouraged to cash in on the growing disillusionment of the Dalits in Bihar. But leaders like Paswan, Sanjay Paswan, Jaynarayan Nishad and others joined the NDA bandwagon, hoping that the Dalit-upper-caste alliance would overthrow Laloo Yadav in the state. Fighting within their ranks allowed Laloo Yadav to return to power. It was only after the BJP dumped Paswan that he was finally disillusioned with the NDA.
Paswan is now struggling to chart a new course in Bihar. In his desperation to recharge the Dalit sentiments against the establishment, Paswan is focussing on the decline of Dalit legacy in Bihar. So he joined the former Dalit Congress leader, Meira Kumar, in her campaign to mobilize support for declaring Jagjivan Ram’s official residence in Delhi as a national memorial. Paswan organized dharnas both in Patna and in Delhi for the cause. He has been visiting districts and campaigning on the rights of Dalits, and on their need for education and employment. He dared to “expose the hypocrisy of Nitish Kumar who cancelled jobs of about 137 poor Dalits who I had recruited in Hajipur”.
But like Mayavati, Paswan wants a slice of Muslim votes too. He went about sharing platforms with minority leaders like Arief Mohammad Khan spewing venom on the the sangh parivar’s evil designs on Gujarat. To further his minority agenda, he had by his side Jagannath Mishra, the former chief minister of Bihar, who is still known to have a sizeable following in north Bihar. Paswan wants to broaden his base with the support of the Bhumihars too — a group which allegedly backed the caste armies to kill Dalits. He criticized the way the prime minister humiliated the Bhumihars by dismissing their leader, C.P. Thakur, from the cabinet.
The Dalits were understandably suspicious of Paswan’s agenda. But he ignored their suspicions and recently inducted one Bhumihar leader from Arwal in his party. “The Dalits can benefit from a broad social alliance”, he insisted. Despite the anomalies in his politics, Paswan is still drawing crowds to his rallies.
However Dalits in Bihar are not too convinced about Paswan’s moves. Besides, Jaynarayan Nishad, a long-time associate of Paswan and Lok Sabha member from Muzaffarpur, has recently parted company with him, creating a rift between the Paswans and the Nishads in the north Bihar districts. Paswan had boasted on the eve of the UP assembly elections that he would split Mayavati’s Bahujan Samaj Party by alienating the Jatavs of western UP from the other Dalit groups. Not only has he failed to do it, but he is in fact facing a similar split in his own support base, following the departure of Nishad.
The control of the Lok Janshakti Party by Paswan’s family members is also fomenting discontent and raising doubts about whether Paswan will be any different from Laloo Yadav in running a government if he comes to power.
Dalit leaders like Paswan are always on the lookout for lucrative alliances. Paswan for instance had no qualms about allying with Arief Mohammad Khan to get minority votes, with Meira Kumar for some Dalit votes of Ara and also perhaps a passport to the Congress.
In all the states where Dalits have been made to enter into a political alliance with a mainstream party, their own agenda has got sidelined. In Maharashtra, when a section of Dalit leaders entered into an alliance with the Shiv Sena-BJP government, it even failed to raise its voice on the Dalit killings in Mumbai. In UP too, the Dalits find themselves confused about sharing power with “a Manuwadi BJP”. In Bihar, if Paswan’s caste combine comes to power will things be any different ' If Paswan is serious about Dalit politics, he should work steadily on their status, the evils of patriarchy and so on. Rather than militant caste slogans, what needs to be stressed is a process of reformation leading to Dalit empowerment. Any compromise on policy would be enough to let the Dalits’ suspicion grow and upset Paswan’s applecart.