Sunday, 2 August 2015

THE LITMUS TEST


Ram Vilas Paswan - Facebook
In an interview to the Economic Times, the Union Food Minister and the LJP chief Ramvilas Paswan called the upcoming Bihar state assembly polls as a matter of 'life and death'. The wily politician who has the distinction of being associated with all three major national formations in the country, namely the NDA, the UPA and the United Front in the last two decades was bang on; having taken the risk of 'compromising' on his secular credentials by jumping on the Modi bandwagon just months before the May 2014 elections, a move that reaped rich dividends in the form of four parliamentary seats, the Hajipur strong man clearly understands the importance of Bihar 2015 from the perspective of national politics in general and the future of his political outfit in particular which has been languishing on the fringes for quite some time. Apart from the fact that a good showing by his Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) will help him in regaining some lost ground on the political turf, it will also be the perfect stage for the senior Dalit leader to pass on the baton to his son and political successor - Chirag Paswan.

The last ten years have largely been disappointing from the perspective of the former Socialist leader. His lust for power got the better of him in February 2005 when a greedy Paswan with 28 MLAs refused to align either with Lalu or Nitish Kumar, leading to a stalemate that lasted for over six months. The move would cost him dearly; not only did 12 MLAs of his party defect to the saffron combine, the LJP's tally in the state assembly held later that year plummeted from 28 to 10, relegating him to a marginal force in Bihar as the Nitish Era began taking shape. In the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, he was a part of the Fourth Front comprising of regional satraps including Mulayum Singh and Lalu Yadav; this tactic to build up some pressure on the ruling Congress which was anyway expected to win a consecutive term proved to be a complete disaster as Paswan's LJP was completely wiped out with the party supremo even losing from his own pocket borough of Hajipur to former CM Ram Sundar Das of the JD-U. As if this humiliation was not enough, the RJD-LJP alliance was decimated by the ruling NDA in the state polls held in the following year. Months before the last General Elections, it was believed that Paswan would stick with the Congress, having burnt his fingers by abandoning the INC in favor of the RJD last time around. However, in a move that took many by surprise, the LJP chief, sensing the national mood in favor of Narendra Modi did the 'unimaginable' by joining the very NDA that he had left, way back in 2002, ironically citing the BJP's inability to prevent the Gujarat Riots.

Paswan is in many ways, the 'Joker' of Bihar politics, having allied with and then ditched almost all major political parties and leaders in the state at various points in a career spanning over four decades. However, the spate of political set backs in the last nine years have put a big question mark on his future. Even the most ardent of his supporters will agree that the four Lok Sabha seats won by the LJP in 2014 were only because of its association with the BJP led by Narendra Modi. With people rejecting caste-based politics in favor of inclusive development, the heroes of the Mandal Era including Paswan have been seeing a substantial percentage of their voter base slowly gravitating towards his rivals. And to make matters worse, the party which was formed way back in 2000 has been unable to spread its organizational structure outside Hajipur making it a sub-regional outfit nor does it have any core ideology; in fact, owing to a dearth of second rung leaders, the LJP is solely dependent on the persona of its supremo to win votes and that unfortunately, is fading at an alarming rate. No wonder then, Paswan's party is expected to get at most 40 seats when the four parties constituting the NDA meet for seat sharing talks in the coming weeks.

Chirag Paswan - Facebook
However, Paswan should have no reason for complaining. In the battle between the BJP led NDA and the Nitish Kumar led Janata Parivaar combine, the LJP would have been wiped out had it taken the risk of going to the polls on its own. The move to piggy bank on the NaMo wave in the General Elections paid off but it is the state polls that will truly decide the fate of the Dalit leader and his party. A tally of over 20 seats could just be the opening that Paswan so desperately needs to revive his political fortunes. Suppose the LJP finishes with a 20 plus tally and the BJP falls short of a majority on its own, the senior politician will leverage his political support to the saffron government to make sure he gets all what he wants. Moreover, if both the coalitions fall short of a simple majority on their own, the Hajipur strongman, leading a contingent of 20 odd MLAs could emerge as the 'King-Maker'. In that scenario, he will have no problems whatsoever in dumping his Union Ministry and the alliance with the BJP to cross over to the JP if he manages to get a good bargain. With the Bihar polls becoming a clash of egos, Nitish & Co. would perhaps not mind offering the CM post to the LJP chief just to keep the BJP out of power in case of a hung assembly later this year. On the other hand, a clear majority to the BJP on its own or the Janta Parivaar will force Paswan to stick with the NDA at least for the time being. Finally, if the LJP fails to go past the two digit mark, like in 2010 then irrespective of the final outcome, it would be safe to assume that henceforth, Paswan will no longer be considered as one of the top political heavyweights of Bihar.

The Bihar state polls 2015 will also be the litmus test for Paswan's 33 year old son Chirag Paswan who made his political debut by winning the 2014 parliamentary elections from Jamui. The former Bollywood actor who was seen as the man behind the BJP-LJP alliance in the state will be keen on repeating his party's superb performance from last May. With the senior Paswan nearing 70, the upcoming elections will be a test for the young leader to horn his leadership skills and make a connect with the masses. It is but natural that he will play a key role in most matters relating to the party including seat sharing talks with the BJP, candidate selection and campaigning. A good show by the LJP would herald the coming of age of another 'son' on Bihar's political landscape whereas a defeat could potentially mark the end of the party as well as the father and son duo that are at the helm of its affairs.