DH EXCLUSIVE | Paswan on how Dalits will vote

Union minister and president of Lok Janshakti Party in conversation with Sitaraman Shankar, editor of DH
Last Updated 20 March 2019, 03:24 IST

It's election season - time to sit back and enjoy the drama of Indian politics, to be entertained by it, but also to understand and analyse the complex issues at play. As part of this, DH brings you comprehensive political coverage under the umbrella of DH Political Theatre. We have interviews with key leaders from across the political spectrum. Today, we have Ram Vilas Paswan, Union Minister and President of Lok Janshakti Party, in conversation with Sitaraman Shankar, editor of Deccan Herald.


Hello everyone and welcome to another edition of Political Theatre from Deccan Herald and Prajavani. Today I have with me Mr Ram Vilas Paswan, who is the Union Minister for Food Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution. He first entered the Lok Sabha in 1977. He has been a nine-term Lok Sabha member and one-time Rajya Sabha member. He is unquestionably one of the tallest Dalit leaders in India.

Welcome to the show Mr Paswan. Let me start by asking you how far Dalit politics has evolved in the last 50 years of public life that you have seen?

In 1977, the incident of Dalit atrocity in Belchi had happened. I became MLA for the first time in 1969. I was selected for the job of Deputy SP before that as soon as I completed my education. But it happened somehow that I joined politics and also won in an election.

There have been three stages in Dalit politics — first of all, they were called untouchables, then Gandhiji came and the independence movement was on, he named them Harijans during independence days. But as you kids born to Devdasis working in temples in South India were also called Harijan. So a controversy broke out on that and it was then declared unconstitutional.

Later, when Baba Saheb brought a new category of Scheduled Castes to identify them. They were called Dalits, however, as Scheduled Caste was a very long word.

The condition of Scheduled Castes was very bad 50 years back in 1969. Leave others, even the Scheduled Caste person himself never gathered the courage to sit in public. They used to remain standing. They used to take out their shoes while passing through the village. Even now, you hear they cannot ride a horse during marriage ceremonies. Atrocities were at peak then. When I first entered Parliament, there was not a single day when we did not raise the issue of Dalit atrocities. Those who are called Dalits today, they themselves did not feel they are also human beings. They believed they are destined to be abused and bashed up. Their houses were burnt. Rapes used to happen. There was nobody to listen to them even in police stations.

Later, Harijan police stations were opened for them. Gradually, the social awakening came. The biggest contribution to this social awakening was made by V P Singh. In the V P Singh government, I was Social Welfare Minister then. We started the job of social awakening then.

There was no portrait of Baba Saheb Ambedkar in Parliament for a long time while portraits of all other leaders were there.

So you got it installed...

When we came to power, we got his portrait in Parliament. His birthday was declared a holiday. He was given Bharat Ratna after much later when we came to power even though many others had already got. His grandson was nominated as Rajya Sabha member. That was only for one year but it was a new era of social awakening. Later, an Act was made to prevent atrocities against Dalits.

Even now, atrocities are happening but its level has come down. There is a difference in the approach of different generations. Our fathers, forefathers tolerated atrocities, we started agitations against atrocities, those from the new generation will right away oppose it, they are not at all ready to tolerate it. That is the fundamental difference. That is why you can see wherever any incident happens, local youths come out against it. There is no need for Ram Vilas Paswan to go and galvanise people against it.

Your partners - the BJP - has a perception problem with the Dalit community be it Rohith Vemula suicide case or Dalit bashing up incidence in Una.

This is a misconception. This misconception is due to the fact that people connect Narendra Modi with BJP and BJP with the RSS. It is due to the caste hierarchy (varna vyavastha) of RSS that all this kind of misconception is there. Otherwise, the kind of work that happened in the last five years for Dalits has no parallel. It never happened in the past. Let us take the example of Narendra Modi. Narendra Modi himself is not a Brahmin, not an upper caste. He is among the most backward. He has been in the RSS. He knows how it happens. He does not speak. He works. Take for example, the places associated with Baba Saheb Ambedkar, who has been the tallest leader of Dalits. Look at the steps taken after Modi came to power to recognise and develop the five places associated with Baba Saheb like his birthplace at Mhow in Madhya Pradesh or Nagpur where he was initiated into Buddhism or his memorial the Chaitya Bhoomi in Mumbai or the place of his education in London, which was also developed as a memorial.

These are symbolic things. What are beyond this?

Also, see the move of the government to restore the original powers of the Scheduled Caste Atrocities Act after the Supreme Court order diluted it. We raised it and then an Act was passed in Parliament to nullify the impact of the SC order on the SC/ST Act. This also damaged BJP somewhat in Assembly polls in Madhya Pradesh as those who earlier accused Modi of being anti-Dalit, started calling him anti-forward castes. But he did not budge from it.

Similarly, the National Commission for Backward Classes was given Constitutional status. The poor among upper castes were given 10 percent reservation. Similarly, when the issue of gau raksha came, he was quick to say that those who engage in violence in the name of cow protection are criminals. When there was a lot of noise about Ram Temple, he clearly said the matter will be decided by the Supreme Court. This is what we used to say, this is what even Congress used to say. After the Una incident, the chief minister of Gujarat was changed. So many officers were suspended. A charge sheet was filed within 30 days.

A lot of actions are happening but as you said, there is an issue of perception. There is a certain image of RSS from the very beginning. There has been some misconception over it. When upper caste people came out in the streets against Modi after the government’s decision on SC/ST, no political party from Congress to Mayawati said that what Modi did was correct. All that they do, is engage in politics. But it is true, there is a perception about RSS that is there.

Coming to elections, how do the Dalit community vote? Do they vote consolidated? With Mayawati fighting the BJP tooth and nail, how does NDA face this challenge?

In Lok Sabha polls, BJP polled huge votes. There are more than 100 subcastes among Scheduled Castes. Scheduled Caste is a combination of castes. There are different leaders like me but when it comes to voting, votes are cast according to the caste of the leader. Mayawati, who belongs to the Jatav community gets her caste votes. All Dalits do not vote for any single leader.

Outside Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati has no influence. She contests the election in many states. How many seats does she win? She had even contested in Karnataka. How many seats did she win? The challenge from BSP only comes when votes from other communities get to combine with her caste votes. She earlier used to abuse the upper castes - 'Thakur baniya brahmin chor baaki sab DS 4, tilak taraju aur talwar inko maro joote chaar'. Even the Supreme Court had come in on the basis of a decision of the Mayawati government in 2007. But she is silent on it now.

When she came to power, her slogan changed. She practises double standard. Her slogan changed. After she formed government, her slogan was - 'haanthi nahin ganesh'. People were thus misled. Now everyone has understood this.

This time it is a new test. Long back, Mulayam Singh Yadav and she had joined hands. But later, there was massive bitterness among them and they fought bitterly. She charged that an attempt was made to kill her in the guesthouse incident. There is bitterness between these two castes. Now since they have come together, it remains to be seen how it will translate. We should also not forget that Congress is not with them this side. We should not forget that it is the Congress that is the first choice of Muslims, Then they vote for the party, which can defeat BJP. Congress is not part of the alliance. It will contest separately. So it has to be seen how the different castes come together. Only elections will tell how many of them have come together. Due to old bitterness, Yadavs will not vote for Mayawati.

Do you accept that there is a reason for you to worry in UP?

I do not think there is any sense of worrying. Nobody can say India’s status got lowered internationally during Modi’s rule. As far as the poor are concerned, schemes like houses, gas cylinder and toilet for every house, Rs 2 kg wheat or Rs 3 kg rice or giving Rs 5 lakh to each family ended up benefiting the poor.

But what in terms of electoral results?

All these things are now. How they will translate into votes can be explained only by the elections. People of the country do not speak. When Indira Gandhi had given the slogan of ‘Garibi Hatao’, it had worked with the masses despite the entire Congress syndicate being against her. People in this country are not vocal. They remain silent. The government’s works are all pro-poor. All these schemes are for the poor. After the recent incidents happening, people have come to this view that this country does not need a weak prime minister.

How will the Priyanka Gandhi factor pan out?

People will come to see and listen to Priyanka Gandhi. But in Bihar, UP, it is the caste vote that will matter. Priyanka is new. She is campaigning. But I am not sure how effective she will be. How much will she be able to change this pattern of caste vote will have to be seen. People will come to listen to her but when they go back to their homes, they will think why should they waste their vote?

So people will come to listen to her and go. But why will they come to listen to her in the first place?

Let me give you my example. When I was contesting from Hajipur, more than three lakh people had gathered to listen to Indira Gandhi when she came there. There was a sea of humanity. But when elections happened, they lost the deposit. I won with a huge majority. My name got included in Guinness Book of World Records. After that, my illusion was also over regarding crowds necessarily translating into votes.

So you have been a minister in various coalition governments. How do you see regional parties doing this time? Do you think we will or we can have a PM from a regional party?

I do not think so. I think NDA will come to power with a thumping majority. Narendra Modi will again become prime minister. We will win the same votes that we got earlier. NDA will cross 300 seats.

Can you explain the arithmetic? How will you get this 300 when you are going to lose seats in the North. You cannot do any better than last time. How will you get 300?

Like Northeast, we were nowhere in the past. Now, we are in power in almost the entire Northeast. In three states, it is true that NDA lost but it did not lose with a substantial margin. Vote percentage is almost equal. By the time election happens, the graph of those having come to power will go down. If we add the arithmetic everywhere, it is clear that NDA will get a majority comfortably.

(Published 19 March 2019, 09:06 IST)

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