Bihar polls: With Ram Vilas Paswan's demise, Chirag's solo gamble now rests on ability to consolidate Dalit vote
Chirag Paswan, who took on the role of the national president of the LJP from his father last year, would not have anticipated that he would have to fight the Bihar elections under his own steam
When Chirag Paswan took on the role of the national president of Lok Janshakti Party from his father last year, he would not have anticipated that he would have to fight the Bihar elections under his own steam.
"I don't want Chirag to walk in my shadow. Whatever the party does now, whether positive or negative will be on him" Ram Vilas Paswan had told The Hindu at the time.
Paswan's demise just days before the election means that Chirag will have to prove true to those words sooner than later, by expanding his party's base, which has all of two MLAs in the outgoing Assembly.
Besides, with LJP no longer in the ruling National Democratic Alliance in Bihar, Chirag is taking on Chief Minister Nitish Kumar's JD(U) as well as the Opposition alliance in the Assembly polls and will miss out on his father's experience of deftly navigating several such crises in the past.
Chirag has large shoes to fill if he wants to truly succeed his father, who had earned the moniker 'mausam vaigyanik' (or political meteorologist) for his tendency to almost always come out on the winning side in politics.
LJP's litmus test
Ram Vilas Paswan polished his credentials as a Dalit leader from his early days; he had formed the Dalit Sena in 1980 to voice issues related to Scheduled Castes. He was also one of the key forces behind the implementation of the Mandal Commission report, which recommended reservation for Other Backward Classes, thereby transforming politics, especially in Hindi-speaking states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, forever.
But what truly made Paswan stand out was that he kept his clout intact in state politics, despite always being active at the national level. In contrast, many of his contemporaries faded away as their grassroots disconnect grew. Although his party never reached the pinnacle in Bihar state politics, it always remained relevant enough for Ram Vilas to earn the moniker of the 'kingmaker', both at Centre and in state.
But Chirag's political story is completely different.
Chirag lacks a grassroots connect comparable to his father, who worked his way up the political ladder from Bihar's Khagariya district.
An article in India Today comments that the immediate loss the party would sustain is the absence of its tallest leader who drew the largest crowds for the party's rallies. The article suggests that Chirag — despite his mini-stint in the movies — fails to elicit a similar response, while his political adversary and RJD scion Tejashwi Yadav appears to do better on that front.
Chirag, a product of nepotism by his own admission, must now face the elections alone and consolidate the Dalit voter base that his father built.
Will sympathy vote count?
But some political watchers believe that a lot will depend on how the LJP's core Dalit voters relate to his son and political heir Chirag Paswan at a time when the demise of his father is bound to trigger sympathy among them.
A Bihar leader, who did not wish to be named, told PTI that the lack of any rival young Dalit leader with state-wide visibility may help the 37-year-old Lok Sabha MP.
"Much will depend on how Chirag Paswan positions himself. His father had a grassroots appeal and spoke the lingo of the masses. They will now pay more attention to him than ever," he told the agency.
The LJP has sought to align itself with the BJP, with Chirag having expressed support for Narendra Modi while taking on the JD(U) in the run-up to the Bihar elections.
The BJP leadership had cultivated Chirag Paswan as a trusted ally over the years, and it would want to foster favourable ties with the LJP in the future as well. This may also work in Chirag's favour.
Will Chirag's decision to go solo pay off?
Political pundits argue that the decision to ditch the NDA alliance in Bihar while walking the tightrope with BJP at Centre could not have been taken without Paswan's nod. It is said that Paswan was preparing ground for Chirag to be the future chief minister of Bihar.
But the political mathematics to win that game may not be so simple.
Since the founding of the LJP in 2000, the party has contested the Bihar Assembly twice without entering into an alliance with a bigger party and fetched more than 11 percent votes on both occasions; in February and then in October of 2005.
The LJP is relying on its traditional formula of backing influential upper caste candidates besides those from its traditional voters in a large number of seats.
The party is now banking on anti-Nitish Kumar voters, including those who have traditionally voted for the NDA despite their reservations with the chief minister, to make the contest triangular in most seats it is fighting on.
However, the death of its popular founder has made things trickier for all concerned.
NDTV reported that JD(U) is already prepared to counter the Paswan factor and any Dalit votes the young leader may attract.
"To offset the Paswans, the Chief Minister joined hands with former rival Jitan Ram Manjhi, who has a significant "Mahadalit" vote - a group that combines all non-Paswan Dalit voters," the report said, adding that JD(U) has anyway never benefitted from Paswan votes since 2005.
With inputs from PTI