With a saffron gamcha around his neck and Narendra Modi -- by his own admission -- in his heart, Bihar’s blue-eyed boy Chirag Paswan pranced into the election waters.
Since that first campaign for his father in 2009, the junior Paswan has become a seasoned politician. But there is a lot riding on his shoulders this time.
The pandemic, which ravaged many of our lives, took away the elder Paswan, one of the tallest Dalit leaders in this country, who has served in the Union Cabinet under six Prime Ministers.
Ram Vilas Paswan's death, days ahead of the Bihar Assembly elections, may have come as a jolt to his grieving son, but it is also an opportunity for Chirag to lead the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) from the fore.
This election also happens to be a litmus test for the two-time Jamui MP, who walked away from the NDA with the war cry “Modi se bair nahi, Nitish teri khair nahi (We don't have enmity with BJP, but won't spare Nitish)”.
Keeping the pro-Modi stance, the party fielded 143 candidates, mostly against the JDU nominees, out of which 52 candidates are in the fray for the second phase of the polls.
The rebellion has been touted as a political stunt by Chirag working as the BJP’s proxy. As part of the alliance in 2015, the LJP fought in 42 seats securing only 4.83 per cent of the total vote share. The party now expects to garner at least over 5 per cent of the votes.
While the senior Paswan’s connections were strongly rooted in rural Bihar, Chirag’s highlighted hair, the stack of bracelets on his wrist, a taste for suits and his “Bihar first, Bihari first” approach has gathered appreciation among the aspirational youths in the state.
Taking a “Yuva Bihari” stance, he has been going hammer and tongs against Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who turns 70 next year. It also helps that around 58 per cent of Bihar’s population is aged between 16 and 40.
Irked over the migrant crisis in the state during the pandemic, Chirag trained his guns at Nitish over the loss of livelihoods and later, during the campaign, tore into the Chief Minister over alleged corruption, employment crisis and education.
In retaliation, Nitish Kumar alleged that the “actor” is using his name for publicity. And Chirag has no qualms about doing so.
The 37-year-old neta recently courted controversy when a purported video of him rehearsing for a video message, a day after the death of his father, went viral.
After all, Chirag knows all about camera cuts and angles and even hair texture -- everything that makes for a stereotypical Bollywood hero. Once an engineer, Chirag began his career in 2011 starring opposite demagogue starlet Kangana Ranaut. Although “Miley Na Miley Hum” flunked at the theatres, it paved the way for his chief ministerial aspirations.
In 2013, an ailing senior Paswan handed over the reins of the party to Chirag, allowing him to call the shots during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Evidently, he convinced the senior Paswan to rejoin hands with the BJP, becoming a crucial ally in the NDA government.
Last year, after the formation of the second Modi-led NDA government, he was officially made the chief of the LJP, a party that Ram Vilas Paswan nurtured since it was launched in 2000.
Among the several uncertainties of 2020, the Bihar elections seemed a monotonous two-way battle between the RJD and the NDA, till Chirag a fortnight ahead of the polls, announced his intentions to fight solo.
The sudden rebellion, however, has been seen by almost all experts as a well-planned move by the BJP, where the junior Paswan would be used to cut into the JD(U) votes, keeping the door open for a post-poll alliance. But the show of 'defiance' also means that Chirag will be bereft of any overt support from the BJP and his Ram - Narendra Modi.
Then again, this is Bihar.
While BJP chief JP Nadda said that their party now has nothing to do with the LJP, BJP’s motor-mouth MP Tejasvi Surya heaped praises on his fellow young parliamentarian.
Called the “Mausam Vaigyanik” by former Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav, Ram Vilas Paswan held sway over Dalit votes and was the ultimate “kingmaker” in Bihar. So will the son emerge as one as well?
Chirag is not his father, insists a senior LJP leader. “With Paswan ji’s death, we have to support Chirag now. He has proven himself as a politician over the years, but there are murmurs within the party regarding breaking off the alliance. Since we are contesting for more seats, the vote share will increase. But not everyone is satisfied with his approach,” he said on condition of anonymity.