New Delhi: Good fences do not always good neighbours make. It’s moot if Chirag Paswan ever read Robert Frost, but there’s no debating the newest son to mount the succession block, has convinced father Ram Vilas politics and poetry turn on different metres. Forget the romance, Papa, confront reality, move on.
With a common backyard on the prime peninsula of Janpath’s VVIP bungalows, the Paswans couldn’t get closer to the Gandhis. The latter occupy the famed Number 10, the Paswans have lived in 12 for decades, separated by no more than a convivial wicket gate.
For a while now, though, that gate hasn’t given. Last week, the Paswans tired of knocking at it; Chirag called time and turned to walk his father and their boutique Bihar concern, the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), a fair distance away.
For the mere lack of a crack in that wicket gate, the two households now lie separated by the widest chasm in Indian politics, between the Gandhis of the Congress and the man who has undertaken to rid the country of the Congress — Narendra Modi.
The elder Paswan is intent there is no erasure of his respect for the elder Gandhi — “Soniaji is a gracious lady and has always been keen and supportive.” The younger Paswan cannot say the same for the younger Gandhi; they seem to have broken off before they could begin. “I tried hard, I swear in all honesty, I tried long and hard, but in a relationship two people have to try. Twice we met Soniaji and twice she said she would ask Rahul to get in touch. I rang and I rang, often several times each day, but nobody picked up. He never made the connect, and what was I to do?”
This is not merely the story of the standout political U-turn in the runup to this summer’s election; in a way this is also the story of how the new generation has come to intervene in the unraveling of old ties and the scripting of new ones. The LJP’s switch from UPA to the NDA came not from the lapsing of chemistry between Ram Vilas Paswan and Sonia Gandhi but from inertness between Chirag and Rahul. The two never combined, old ties combusted.
Chirag is seated in an oblong ante-room of 12 Janpath, not far from that frozen fence to Number 10, a little defensive under the dazzle of his tawny gym-toned frame and smart armour — fitted silken shirt under a taut black suit, a spit-and-polish sparkle roving off trendy lace-ups. Not the attire for the rough-and-tumble of Bihar politics, more the countenance of a Bollywood rookie, which Chirag is. He romanced Kangana Ranaut in a 2011 dud and is yet to make a second appearance on the silver screen. On the new stage he walks, he’s unabashed about carrying his filmi persona, or, what he calls his real one. “Look, this is what I am comfortable in, I am not going to pretend. Yes, you won’t see me like this on the campaign trail, but even out there in Bihar I wear jeans with my kurtas, why pretend to be what you are not?” So is he a politician now? Full time? Here to stay? “I would think so, I have taken on a job, a commitment. I had a lovely luxury life in Bombay, everything I could possibly want. Why would I leave all that for the dust and dirt of Bihar? You know how hard that is, but I have chosen this life.”
He’s just entered the room incanting a confession and a dare: “I know I have done this and I’m facing the heat, but I am prepared to face it.” He is feeling the flame of it, the allegation that he has forced his father’s hand, twisted his politics, driven him to embracing the man he had recoiled from after the bloody Gujarat turmoil of 2002. “I know questions are being asked, my answer is we have a party to run, followers to keep, a future to have. Rahul was offering us nothing, Laluji (of RJD) was throwing crumbs, we are not prepared to grovel any more. Narendra Modi is an honourable man, his hands are clean, the youth are with him, the BJP is prepared to respect us and give us our rightful share. If you call this opportunism, well, say what you will. But we did require seats of our choice in Bihar, every party does, we needed a stage and a space to breathe, I see nothing wrong with that. What has driven us to this decision is not merely compulsion, it is the necessity to survive.”
The answers come rolling out before the inquiry has been made; Chirag has been treadmill trained this past week on the hard questions, he’s profusely perspiring responses. “I’ve had people ask me all kinds of questions lately, as if I were some villain. Why did I push my father to the BJP? Where I got my interest in politics from suddenly? How have I come to make big decisions, on what basis? I only say I have an institution at home called Ram Vilas Paswan, and he is no fool, he won’t be pushed into decisions by anyone. I have grown up breathing politics day in and day out since I was a child. I am of age and I have decided to give politics my all. I am a politician’s son, yes, but there are many others so the question should not be asked of me alone. I have worked and campaigned for my party. So to those who question my locus standi I have to say that you do not have to teach the offspring of fish how to swim the waters. You know something, I have realized I am much more comfortable facing political journalists than I was with the filmi folk, films and acting I was passionate about, but politics is my home, here, in a party, surrounded by people and decisions to be made.” Phew!
He reaches for a swig of chilled water, then shifts in the sofa as if to brace for the next volley. He holds his square head still, his dust-grey pupils quite steady, his palms crossed under his chin. It’s a bring-it-on posture, bring it on, I’m ready. Must be tough bringing upon his father the charge of deserting “secular” politics, or is it nothing he cares about? “Who can question my father’s credentials, or my party’s? People know what we stand for. We have not merged with the BJP, we have our differences, and our understanding comes on the basis of an agreed common agenda. I don’t allow anyone to define us, we know who we are.” But his father did hesitate heading towards the BJP, didn’t he? “Frankly, yes, he had his reservations. But I have been asking him to look seriously at Narendra Modi for two years now, he is the man of the future. When I was given a party post (chairman of the LJP parliamentary board) I spoke out more forthrightly. He took some convincing but in the end he assented. He would not have if he did not want to, he is nobody’s fool, why would he be led by a greenhorn like me?” For the love of a son, putramoh? “Ha, ha no. He did the putramoh bit encouraging me to take a career in acting, this is politics, serious business. And he has allowed me to make my first big move.”
No regrets over breaking up with the Gandhi neighbours? “None,” Chirag says with a firm shake of his head, “None at all, I tried, as I said, they did not respond.” His hands are pointed towards Number 10, just a few paces across the back lawns. He may well unroll a poster from the only movie he ever acted in and turn it along the wall towards the Gandhis. Miley Naa Miley Hum, the movie was called, whether we meet, or we do not. Good fences do not always good neighbours make.