ON 3 MARCH, the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union (JNUSU) president, 28-year-old Kanhaiya Kumar, walked out of Tihar jail after the Delhi High Court granted him conditional bail for six months. He was taken straight to the university, where, in a few hours, he emerged at the administrative block. At about 11 pm, a smiling Kanhaiya was greeted with loud cheers. He grabbed two mikes and did not stop for the next 66 minutes. His speech captivated a section of the political class, especially the opposition. To some, it even sounded like the bugle announcing the end of the Narendra Modi Government’s popularity. Kanhaiya became a handy argument against the Government. Some even hailed him as a possible challenger to Modi.
Noted writer and niece of Jawahar Lal Nehru, Nayantara Sahgal said, “Kanhaiya Kumar has electrified India with not only his speech in which much passion prevailed, but also in the interviews that he has given to the media where much rationality, much common sense, much quiet measured talk and a command of facts prevailed.” In her words, “We owe him a huge debt of gratitude for taking us out of that molasses of depression which many of us had fallen into for a while. Mr Modi has met his match in Kanhaiya Kumar.”
A section of political leaders and intelligentsia is indebted to Kanhaiya, for he has given them a reason to believe that they are still relevant. His one speech has transformed him from a radical student leader to every opposition party’s daydream. His arrival at a time when five states are about to go to the polls makes him a political weapon in the hands of parties that were struggling to find a fitting plank to contest on. The Left has claimed him first, for obvious reasons. “There is a demand for Kanhaiya to campaign in different parts of the country,” says D Raja, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (CPI). “As a student activist and a political activist, he is likely to campaign for us.” Kanhaiya is a member of the All India Students’ Federation (AISF), the student wing of CPI. CPM’s Sitaram Yechury is not far behind in staking a claim on Kanhaiya. “He is a Left activist. He will naturally campaign,” he says.
Kanhaiya emerged from jail a different man. His address, now, was to the nation, and it betrayed grander political ambitions
Senior Congress leader and MP Shashi Tharoor congratulates the BJP for creating the Kanhaiya Phenomenon. “Their actions (BJP’s) have made a martyr out of Kanhaiya Kumar,” he says. “They have also given him the platform, and the media attention, to deliver the stinging critique of the Government that has catapulted him to political stardom.” His party is among those exploiting the groundswell of support for Kanhaiya. Congress Vice- President Rahul Gandhi wasted no time in going to JNU after the arrest of the student leader. He even mentioned Kanhaiya in his Parliament speech. Ghulam Nabi Azad, senior Congress leader and leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha, was the first to demand security for Kanhaiya after his release.
That Kanhaiya Kumar is seen as someone who can reverse the political dynamic reflects the void in the current leadership of the Congress, the Left and the regional parties. In the absence of actual grassroots heroes, they are freely borrowing from the oratory of a student leader to script their respective destinies. “If any political party thinks that it can hinge on Kanhaiya for political gains, it just shows their bankruptcy of leaders and ideas,” says Sanjay Kumar, professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS). “The very fact that established political parties don’t have an established leader better than Kanhaiya is laughable.”
THE APPEAL OF Kanhaiya lies partly in his ability to offer emotional authenticity to the age-old rhetoric of fighting for equality and freedom. His family background inspires empathy. He comes from Bihat village in Begusarai district, Bihar. His father, Jaishankar Singh, is a farmer who has been bedridden for the last two years after a stroke left him paralysed. His mother Meena Devi is an Anganwadi worker earning a meager Rs 3,000 per month. The student leader comes across as someone who is working hard to achieve something in life—a theme evoked by Narendra Modi at the highpoint of his General Election campaign in 2014. Kanhaiya’s 2016 campaign for everyone’s right to a respectable place
in society has, consequently, won him a focal, if provisional, place in Indian politics. Shiv Visvanathan, professor at the Jindal School of Government and Public Policy, finds the idea of Kanhaiya the national leader an exaggeration. “It is hyperbolic to say that Kanhaiya is a match for Modi. He is just a student leader and a one-speech wonder,” he says.
His speeches before he was arrested present a different aspect of his persona. He spoke as someone concerned about student rights and a follower of his party (AISF) ideology. But he emerged from jail a different man. His address, now, was to the nation, and it betrayed grander political ambitions. This was, after all, his one chance at glory and he had to make the best of it. He revealed himself to be a pragmatist, aware of the CPI’s present political incongruity and looking beyond party lines to make references to Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal. “If Rahul Gandhi and Kejriwal stand in my support, you call them traitors too,” he said. Throughout his speech, the target remained the same: Narendra Modi, his poll promises and the RSS agenda of dividing India. It was a politically charged speech, better than most we have heard from opposition leaders questioning the Government on its policies. It got the Left thumping their desks with joy and pride. Yechury tweeted after Kanhaiya’s speech: ‘Red salute Comrade Kanhaiya, in the hands of future generation lies the prospect of Independent India.’
Kanhaiya’s speech revealed the pragmatist in him. Aware of the CPI’s political incongruity, he looked beyond party lines to make references to Rahul Gandhi and Kejriwal
The real test of Kanhaiya is yet to come. Will he campaign for the Left Front as claimed by its senior leaders? Will he be able to revive a moribund CPI ahead of the Assembly elections? Kanhaiya hasn’t made up his mind yet about campaigning. For now, he wants to concentrate on student problems. But going by the way senior leaders are rooting for him, it looks like he’ll be left with little choice. His party looks upon him as a youth icon who can inject some life in inert cadres and perhaps even attract new members. Only time will tell if he will be able to arrest its decline in terms of electoral and organisational presence. Kanhaiya will have to share the confusion of the Left and side with the Congress in West Bengal while fighting against it in Kerala. There is not much hope in West Bengal even after the tactical understanding with the Congress. This will likely send the Left on a downward spiral, impacting its prospects in Kerala. If Kanhaiya becomes part of this deflating story—if he becomes the ‘flag bearer of a failed ideology’, as Mohandas Pai, former head of HR at Infosys, put it—his charm will diminish fast. Sloganeering in JNU is one thing, and tackling the real problems of 21st-century India, while being burdened with the 19th-century ideology of the Left, is quite another. In all probability, Kanhaiya will end up a showpiece for the Left as its organisational structure will not permit him to rise to the top.
THE CONGRESS, MEANWHILE, is grasping at straws. In Assam, the party distributed pamphlets with pictures of Rohith Vemula and Kanhaiya Kumar. Out of the five states going to the polls— Kerala, Assam, Puducherry, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu—it is only Assam where Congress has some stake. There is strong anti-incumbency against the existing Congress Governments in both Assam and Kerala. The opposition is formidable in Kerala. A campaign by Kanhaiya would only harm the Congress in these two states. In West Bengal, the party is a minor player. “You are looking only at the Assembly elections; we are focusing on the larger goal,” says CP Joshi, Congress general secretary in charge of West Bengal. “Our primary aim is to weaken the BJP and it doesn’t matter who does that. We will do every possible thing to stop them.” Joshi indicates that the Congress foresees a comeback for itself in the decline of BJP. Kanhaiya, then, is a useful political tool who can be used to create a sense of fear among the youth and the poor and to turn them against the BJP. His ideology, however, hardly gels with the party’s politics. Besides, a rising Kanhaiya could overshadow Rahul Gandhi, the Congress own youth icon.
The CPI looks upon him as a youth icon who can inject some life in inert cadres and even attract new members. Whether he can arrest its decline is doubtful
If Kanhaiya does want to be in active politics, he will have no dearth of opportunity. “He has achieved far more than a student leader could aim for,” says Sanjay Kumar of CSDS. “The stage is set for him to graduate to mainstream politics.” However, contrary to popular perception, he says, many Indians are opposed to, even exasperated with, Kanhaiya Kumar. Joining a political party would further narrow down his support base. “He is a good orator and will survive till his fight is philosophical,” says Sanjai Bhatt, professor of Social Work at Delhi University. “The moment he becomes political, he will start losing his fan following.”
Is he a media creation? “Some sections of the media projected Kejriwal as a hero. But he too got busy once he came to power,” says Shiv Visvanathan. “Now after a long gap they have found someone. He is the new media darling.” Chandan Mitra, BJP MP, echoes similar views, but he says it is the middle-class and their disenchantment with today’s political class that has elevated Kanhaiya. ‘The disillusionment with party politics has resulted in individual charisma acquiring a fatal charm, irrespective of ideological hue,’ he writes. ‘It is the same craving for a ‘hero’ that led the voters of Delhi to repose overwhelming faith in a former tax official-turned-anti-corruption-crusader and anoint him Chief Minister at the head of a ramshackle party.’ Professor Bhatt even compares him to Prince, the young boy who was made an instant hero by primetime TV after he was rescued from a bore-well after 49 hours. No one remembers him now.
“In a democracy, such incidents take place and for a moment, compel us to think,” says Bhatt. “And then we move on to something else.”