India’s food minister Ram Vilas Paswan dies at 74

Veteran Indian politician Ram Vilas Paswan, a federal minister and an ally of Prime Minister Narenda Modi’s ruling coalition, died on Thursday after weeks in hospital, his son Chirag Pawsan said in a tweet. He was 74.

Paswan, India’s Minister for Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, was admitted to a hospital in New Delhi on September 11 and underwent heart surgery on October 4.

In his role as food minister, Paswan oversaw the world’s biggest food welfare programme, under which the government gives cheap rice and wheat to India’s millions of poor people.

“I am saddened beyond words,” Modi said in a tweet reacting to news of his death. “There is a void in our nation that will perhaps never be filled.”

In his long political career, Paswan worked with many prime ministers and served as India’s mines, steel, and telecommunication and information minister among other portfolios.

As the chief of the Lok Janshakti (People’s Power) Party (LJP), Paswan joined Modi’s right-wing National Democratic Alliance (NDA) that swept India’s general election in 2014. The NDA was voted back to power with a bigger majority in 2019.

Paswan and his party represented India’s Dalits (formerly referred to as the “untouchables”), a socially disadvantaged community at the bottom of the country’s complex caste hierarchy.

Dalits make up about three-quarters of the majority Hindu population, that is about 80 percent of India’s 1.3 billion people.

Paswan’s LJP enjoys considerable support in his home state of Bihar in the east, where assembly elections will begin later this month.

His son, Chirag Paswan, a member of parliament, is leading the LJP in the three-phase vote for the state legislature.

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