When matched against his 'stage performer' image — that he assumed after his post-jail speech in JNU on 4 March — Kanhaiya Kumar's persona, in real life, is a lot less dramatic. One particular trait of the former Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) student union president, however, remains the same — his ability to give a rhetorical spin to everything he says, with astonishing ease.
Kanhaiya shot to fame and became an overnight sensation following his arrest from the JNU campus on 12 February on charges of sedition. As many of his peers in JNU campus call him, this 'accidental hero', till sometime ago, was just an affable boy next door. He chose politics, which he prefers to call activism, over the hunt for a well-paying government job.
His short stint at Tihar jail and protests by the student community that followed, made him an instant celebrity of sorts. After coming out of jail, his speech, televised live, made him a favourite of 'liberals and progressive intelligentsia' in general and the Left in particular. Now Kanhaiya has penned his journey in a book, From Bihar to Tihar (published by Juggernaut).
In conversation with Firstpost, Kanhaiya revealed some honest insights about his journey, put forward some philosophical explanations to some simple questions and offered a host of rhetorical arguments on his activism and politics.
How does someone with limited means, coming from an extremely humble background, choose between a secure career and an uncertain one offered by activism?
"I have engaged with this aspect in my book. It was not a deliberate attempt, rather it instinctively became a part of the narrative. My life trajectory has been full of ups and downs. I feel that when you reach a certain height, it overwhelms you. But when you fall, you understand that success is transient. This makes you strong and helps you get in the mould where you start feeling content with whatever you have," Kanhaiya said.
Chronicling the events that shaped his life, Kanhaiya stressed that he always wanted to secure a job but the circumstances did not allow him to do so.
"After coming to Delhi, I was preparing for the civil services exam but there was a sudden change in the syllabus and I decided not to take the exam. You have to understand that it is not always you who determine the trajectory of your life but, many a times, it is your circumstances that shape your life," Kanhaiya added.
While combing through the rhetoric, we tried to understand what triggered Kanhaiya's entry into student politics, and what circumstances forced him to leave behind his dream of becoming a civil servant.
"By then, I had read a lot of books. One amongst them was a book by Bhagat Singh, which has often been quoted in films and popular culture, where he talks about his loyalty and devotion towards the nation. The essence of Bhagat Singh's conversation was to define what love is. Love, when it is for a person, gets liquidated in him or her. Likewise, when the love is for the community, it liquidates with the community," philosophises the young JNU scholar.
He adds, "This journey from micro level to macro becomes very natural. The question is where you keep your state of mind, at the smaller lever or take it to the bigger canvas."
But didn't his financial condition, of which he talks at length in his book, compel him to look for employment? "All my moves since I grew up were aimed at getting a job. Bur gradually, I felt that I was content as all my needs were fulfilled," Kanhaiya said.
On being asked why he chose JNU, Kanhaiya said that finances played important factor, as this was perhaps the only place where someone from his background could come and study.
"JNU has a great peer group. The bonding between students is so strong that they stand for each other, even in difficult times. And this gives someone like me an immense sense of security. Also, it meant that after I started getting fellowships, I could help my family out financially. Also, I feel that doing research is good work. People might not consider reading Premchand as work but I don't think in the same manner,” Kanhaiya said.
Ask him how he convinced his parents and he says, "I have also tried to broaden the ideological prism of my parents, through which they see the world. Now when someone asks my mother when she will get me married, she quips that why will she do that and that I will marry when and to whomever I want."
When asked what is the logical conclusion of what many feel is 'protest activism', Kanhaiya says, "One of my teachers used to give an example. He used to say that in a temple, people go with different motives: a boy goes there to look for a girl, a girl to wish for a nice groom, a businessman for his profits and a thief to steal shoes. People live their life as they want and the conclusion follows."
Rhetoric aside, when asked how he sees his 'activism' moving forward, Kanhaiya said, "I want the ideals that are enshrined in the preamble of our constitution to become a reality. That is the reason why I am in student politics. All my activism and politics is for this and whether I do it as a student leader or as a member of parliament (MP), the end goal will remain the same."
Replying to whether the Left, as it is today, has the ability to mobilise people to realise his ideals, Kanhaiya said, “If the right wing ideology has increased then the Left also needs to increase its influence, but that has not happened. The reason is that they [Left] don't have a connect with the masses, they don't have any organic links with people. My connection with the masses was also accidental. That is why I can understand that flaw. That effort should begin at the grass root level."
He adds, “There is no doubt that polarisation is taking place. But then there will also be counter polarisation and the question is, who will capture this space? Like in Bihar, if people become disillusioned with Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav, who will they opt for?”
On whether he thinks Left politics can fill that space of alternative discourse, Kanhaiya promptly answers: "No, it is not possible with the current Left politics; I feel there is no Left in politics and where there is Left, there is no politics."
He adds, "After independence, the first opposition was provided by the Communist party. But why was it that when Congress started losing ground, the Communist party could not replace it? It was because before replacement could take place, it broke down."
"In India, you need to mobilise people on the issue which concerns them and not on the basis of some foreign idioms and categorisation," Kanhaiya said.
On being asked if he will join a political party, Kanhaiya curtly gave a rehearsed answer: "I want to be a teacher and have never thought about it." But his ambition and inclination towards politics is palpable, which he, like an astute politician, hides behind the garb of lofty ideals.