The passing away of veteran socialist and Dalit leader Ram Vilas Paswan marks the beginning of the end of an era in Indian politics in general and heartland politics in particular. This era began in the 1960s and 1970s, when a generation of young activists, inspired by Ram Manohar Lohia and Jayaprakash Narayan, sought to create an alternative to the Congress. From Lalu Prasad, Nitish Kumar and Paswan himself in Bihar to Mulayam Singh in Uttar Pradesh, the pillars of what came to be termed as the politics of social justice emerged at this time. They were broadly socialist in their orientation; they focused on the caste question as the central contradiction of Indian society; and they promised representation, equity, justice and progress to their constituents within a democratic framework.
To achieve this, Paswan — and other leaders — jumped into the electoral fray, for they were clear that it was only through political power that justice could be delivered. But this tension, between the politics of power and the politics of justice, was not easy to resolve. It is to the credit of this generation of political figures that they deepened Indian democracy, and gave a voice to marginalised social groups. They also used power to enhance access to justice and dispense patronage to newer social groups. But often, power became an end in itself, the idealism morphed into cynical political transactions with ideological adversaries and rivals, and resource accumulation became a primary goal.
Paswan represented this dichotomy in Indian politics. As the wave of obituaries and condolence messages from across the political spectrum indicates, he spoke for the marginalised — and within his limited power, often pushed for changes in laws and policies and sought to deliver benefits to his social group. But at the same time, the fact that Paswan had been an active part of each major political stream in India — from the Bharatiya Janata Party which he once considered communal to the Congress which he opposed in his early decades in politics (including during the Emergency) to the Third Front of which he became disdainful in his final years — indicates that power often trumped the idea of justice. This was not necessarily his fault. Democratic and electoral politics is about seeking power but the quest for democratic and electoral success often entails compromises, which dilute the commitment to social change. Finding this balance is essential if the next generation of politicians committed to social justice wants to succeed.