NAGPUR, Maharashtra — When the Supreme Court diluted sections of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act 1989 in March 2018, it sparked protests across the country.
A few months later, the Narendra Modi government reversed the Supreme Court decision through an amendment bill in parliament. One cabinet minister played a key role in convincing the Modi government of the importance of retaining key provisions of this act — Union Minister for Food and Public Distribution Ram Vilas Paswan. Paswan quietly made sure the Modi government reversed the Supreme Court judgment but did not receive the credit he deserved.
Paswan’s intervention on the Atrocities Act in 2018 was of a decades-long pattern of exercising quiet but significant influence by working the levers of India’s ponderous Parliamentary system.
Thirty years previously, in 1989, he was the minister for Labour and Welfare in V.P. Singh’s cabinet when his government passed the original Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act and the landmark implementation of the Mandal committee recommendations which paved the way for reservation for Other Backward Classes (OBCs). The V.P. Singh government also posthumously awarded the Bharat Ratna to the architect of the Indian Constitution Dr. B.R. Ambedkar.
Paswan was a key player in each of these moments. Paswan was also one of the few politicians to withdraw from the Vajpayee government after the Gujarat riots of 2002. And Paswan was also a politician who subsequently threw in his lot with Narendra Modi, who was the Chief Minister of Gujarat at the time of the riots.
In the long sweep of history since his first stint as a Union Minister in 1989, Paswan was part of every single central dispensation with the exception of P.V. Narsimha Rao’s government. While his critics saw this as a reflection of an absence of political convictions, Paswan’s political legacy is better seen as an ambitious experiment to...