Ram Vilas Paswan and the politics of symbolic secularism

By Ayub Khan,

Lok Janshakti Party leader Ram Vilas Paswan now appears to have settled in comfortably with Narendra Modi and the NDA alliance. It was quite a turnaround for the Dalit leader who had quit the Vajpayee led alliance over the 2002 Gujarat massacres. He had then become a martyr to the secular cause and was much applauded at home and abroad for the ‘principled stance.’ That step also gave a temporary fillip to his long held ambition of becoming the first Dalit prime minister of India. But those plans again failed to take of as another contender, ‘dalit ki beti’ Mayawati, grew in both influence and power across the country and not just in her home state. Despite the failure in achieving his ambitions he remained relevant by making right noises at the right time and as a consolation was made a minister in the UPA government.

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One consistent feature throughout Paswan’s long career has been his vocal articulation of issues close to the heart of the Muslim community. Whether it is Babri Masjid issue, the communal violence bill, or the low percentage of Muslims in Delhi’s kindergarten schools, he has raised them inside and outside the parliament. He became a darling of Indian Muslims. But apart from being an advocate for their cause he has done little else for the community’s welfare. In effect he became an embodiment of what he now himself describes as politics of secularism as only a slogan. It is now apparent that all his advocacy for him only to broaden his base and acceptability along the socio-political spectrum and not much else.

Ram Vilas Paswan (file photo)

This is evident from a long list of unfulfilled promises he made to the community. The most prominent of which was to include Muslim and Christian Dalits in the reservation pie. As social welfare minister in V.P. Singh’s National Government he was instrumental in including neo-Buddhists in the ambit of the reservations in 1990. He had promised that he would make strenuous efforts to include Muslim and Christian Dalits shortly. Despite the passage of a quarter of century this promise remains unfulfilled.

He has also promised upon quitting the government in 2002 that he would never again join the BJP. He broke the promise by saying that times have changed and that now only the issue of development remains. All the same he still claims to be secular and an advocate of Indian Muslims who are wary of his assurances that he would never let a riot appear again. He had made a similar promise when he had joined Vajpayee’s government and was unable to do anything to stop them.

In the light of such poor record would Indian Muslims ever trust him again? The answer it appears is in the negative, at least for now. However, he can still redeem his status if he is able to deliver on some aspirations of the community. The chances that this will happen are a long shot but here is a short laundry list:

1. Ram Vilas Paswan should shun lucrative ministries like coal and petroleum, and instead opt for ministry with social justice relevance like HRD, Social Welfare, and Minority Affairs.

2. Once suitably positioned he should pilot legislation to amend the discriminatory aspects of the Presidential SC/ST Order 1950 which bars Muslim and Christian Dalits from the reservation pie.

3. Try to gain consensus within the NDA to support the clocked Communal Violence Bill. It will be a big achievement even if it is enacted in a diluted form.

4. Ensure that the existing minority welfare schemes remain firmly entrenched and to counter any attempts to revoke them. Narendra Modi in his Chief Ministerial career had actively sought to block these schemes and would most certainly try to do the same now that he is the Prime Minister.

5. Ensure that the National Commission of Minorities and the National Integration Council are not dissolved.

6. Balance the appointment of Sangh Parivar activists in the state institutions like NCERT, IB, etc. by appointment of equal number of dalits and minorities.

7. Stop the impending re-toxification of textbooks which teach history and social sciences, an unfinished agenda of the Vajapyee regime which was constrained by the then coalition compulsions, through the Sangh Parivar lens.

As stated earlier that chances that the above demands would be actually realized are pretty slim. This is especially so in the light of the fact that Paswan has come a long way from his ancient earthy self to a connoisseur of elitist lifestyle. He once regaled his audiences with talk of his travels with the Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh. If he still remembers the revered monk’s teachings he would recall that he lays much emphasis on the characteristic of ‘fearlessness.’ One of his oft-quoted saying is that, ‘Fearlessness is not only possible, it is the ultimate joy.’ Would Paswan overcome his fears and actually deliver on his promises? India’s Muslims would be keenly watching his moves.