Thursday, Dec 07, 2023

Bold Gamble By Lamplight

Bold Gamble By Lamplight

Chirag Paswan has done the unthinkable by pulling out of the NDA. But there could be a method to this madness.

Bold Gamble By Lamplight Photograph by PTI

For a craftily audacious poll strategy, propelled by quiet confidence, Chirag Paswan is the unlikeliest scene-stealer amid the hurly-burly of Bihar assembly elections. His stiff, and lofty, target is the mighty Nitish Kumar, who is eyeing reelection for his fourth term as CM.

Chirag’s Lok Janshakti Party has only two MLAs in the 243-member Vidhan Sabha, but the 37-year-old appears to be playing his cards with the guile of a master poll strategist—much like his father, the recently-deceased Ram Vilas Paswan, who punched above his political weight for four decades through sheer astuteness. Chirag’s recent move to exit the NDA—but not at the Centre—and go solo in the state polls, with or without the tacit support of the BJP, betrays a fearless ability to take risks. Speculation surfaced about his motives, but will Chirag’s gamble pay off, now that his father, known for his near-infallible pre-poll strategies, is not around to show him the way?

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Ram Vilas Paswan, the 74-year-old Union minister who passed away on October 8 after a protracted illness in Delhi, will be conspicuous by his absence in the Bihar elections for the first time in 51 years. At the most important juncture of his political career in the middle of the poll battleground, Chirag faces two unenviable tasks: to lead the Lok Janshakti Party to a creditable performance and prove himself to be worthy of carrying forward the legacy of his late father, the biggest Dalit icon from Bihar since Babu Jagjivan Ram.

The twin challenges are daunting enough for someone who does not have decades of political experience, like his redoubtable rivals. Nonetheless, now that the hour is nigh, Chirag has to put his political acumen and organisational abilities to a litmus test in the next few days, with little time to grieve over his loss. His father’s demise has, in fact, renewed the focus on him—will he be able to prove himself equal to the task?

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Chirag has been a quick learner of the tricks of the trade, though he was initially reluctant to join politics. In fact, a few weeks before the 2010 assembly elections, Paswan had ruled out the entry of his son, then an aspiring actor in Bollywood, into politics. “Chirag is already into films. He may come for campaigning during the assembly polls, but he will not join politics,” he had announced.

Chirag Paswan was at that time shooting for his debut movie, Miley Naa Miley Hum, starring Kangana Ranaut in the lead opposite him. Immersed in the colours of Bollywood, he had shown no inclination to follow in the footsteps of his father, who had an enviable record in electoral politics, including a coveted entry into The Guinness Book of World Records for winning the 1977 Lok Sabha election with the biggest-ever margin of votes from Hajipur constituency. At the film’s premiere in Patna in 2011, Chirag seemed to be too starry-eyed for people to even contemplate a career for him in politics. After obtaining a B.Tech degree, he just wanted to pursue his dream of making it big in Hindi cinema.

All that, however, changed within the next couple of years. The drubbing of the Lok Janshakti Party in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls and the 2010 assembly election, followed by the resounding failure of his maiden movie at the box office, forced a change in priorities and made him rethink his career options. His father needed him by his side to infuse a fresh lease of life into the LJP. One by one, all its senior leaders had deserted Paswan after the LJP’s dismal performances in those two elections, both of which he had contested in alliance with Laloo Prasad Yadav’s RJD. In 2009, he himself lost the parliamentary election from Hajipur, his pocket borough, and ceased to be a Union minister.

Chirag mulled over the choice of politics for a while before he lent support to his father in his bid to revive the party, which was being derided by Paswan’s detractors as being a one-family organisation. Around this time, Chirag must have made a quiet resolve: leaving his acting career behind, he chopped off his flowing mane, junked his flashy outfits and switched over to spotless whites on blue denim. He also started accompanying his father on regular trips to the dusty hinterland of Bihar to get a hands-on experience of the state’s caste-ridden politics. Initially dismissed even by partymen as anything but serious, Chirag soon got an opportunity to prove that he was worthy of his father’s mantle.

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Ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, he convinced his father to join forces with the BJP, Paswan’s bête noire until then. He apprised Paswan about a perceptible surge in the popularity of Narendra Modi, the saffron outfit’s new prime ministerial nominee. Paswan was in two minds primarily for two reasons. Firstly, he had quit the Atal Behari Vajpayee government 11 years ago over the handling of the 2002 riots by Gujarat’s erstwhile Modi government. Secondly, he did not want to let down his Bihar ally Laloo Prasad Yadav, who was generous enough to send him to Rajya Sabha after his defeat in the Lok Sabha polls. Finally, Paswan trusted Chirag’s instincts and gave his nod. Chirag took care of the rest. He negotiated with the BJP top brass and managed to wangle seven (out of a total of 40) to contest in Bihar. After Paswan became Union minister in the Modi government, Laloo sarcastically called him a ‘mausam vaigyanik (weathervane)’ because of his uncanny ability to switch over to the winning side in the nick of time. But it was Chi­rag who had foreseen the Modi wave in 2014, much before his father did.

Chirag’s move paid off, helping LJP bounce back into the reckoning with six MPs, its highest ever, in the Lok Sabha. Chirag himself won from the Jamui (reserved) constituency by a big margin. And so did his father from Hajipur. In the next few years, Chirag took control of the party, as Paswan got busy with his ministerial work. After the LJP repeated its performance in the 2019 parliamentary polls, Paswan formally handed over its reins to his son.

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Currently, while rumours are bruited about Chirag’s behind-the-scenes dealing with the BJP as part of their larger game plan to weaken Nitish Kumar after the polls, he might as well have taken the decision to go it alone as a well-thought-out strategy to revive his party, which has gradually weakened over the past 15 years. In 2005, LJP had won 29 seats with about 13 per cent voteshare, but the party was reduced to only two seats, with only four per cent share, in the 2015 assembly polls. Most importantly, the LJP has fared worse whenever it has contested assembly polls, either in alliance with the NDA or with the RJD.

Chirag apparently thinks that the LJP has nothing to lose by contesting the polls solo so long as he is able to remain in the good books of the BJP top brass at the Centre. Though he has underlined his “ideological differences” with Nitish without qualms, he has been at pains to emphasise at the same time that he has an abiding faith in Modi’s leadership. Clearly, Chirag is making a grab at the best of both worlds but it involves grave risks. A favourable result will boost his prospects, but a crushing defeat will leave him virtually isolated in Bihar politics.

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Whatever happens, Chirag has a far bigger task ahead: filling the void in the Dalit leadership caused by Paswan’s death, both at the state and the national level. His father, who first became an MLA in 1969, had the proven ability to get the votes of his supporters transferred in bulk to his poll partners, irrespective of their political stripes, in successive elections. The massive turnout at his funeral in Patna bore ample testimony to his enduring popularity across all sections of Bihar.

Chirag will be lucky enough if he is able to forge a similar connect with his core voters and win even a fraction of the goodwill that his father enjoyed all through his life and political career. His real test, therefore, will continue long after this election is over.