In 1969, a tall and lanky Dalit political activist, in his early 20s, entered the Bihar legislative assembly as a legislator of the Samyukta Socialist Party.
It was a time of political ferment. The hegemony of the Congress had been eroded, for the first time, in state elections in 1967, and alternative ruling coalitions — usually led by socialists — had taken over many state capitals in north India. But this political ferment itself was a result of social churn. The first cracks in upper caste dominance were visible. Backward communities were making their presence felt in democratic politics. Social justice for the marginalised was becoming a central political plank. It was in this milieu that the young Dalit man from north Bihar threw in his lot with socialists.
On Thursday, 51 years after his entry into public life as an elected representative, the young activist, who went on to become one of India’s most senior politicians and, arguably, the most senior Dalit leader in the country, passed on.
In life and death, Ram Vilas Paswan represented the possibilities and limitations of the politics of social justice in India. He symbolised the pathway that democratic electoral politics offered to marginalised communities to demand their space and challenge the hierarchies present in the social order. But he also symbolised the pragmatism — and what critics would call the opportunism — that often marks high politics in India.
It was in how Paswan navigated the twin streams of the politics of justice and the politics of power, while remaining eternally relevant, that made him a true survivor of Indian politics.
To understand what Ram Vilas Paswan meant for Dalit politics — much before Mayawati became its face and far surpassed Paswan’s political stature in the community — it is important to understand the social context in which he came from.