In the din of shrill accusations and nationalistic homilies on television, the political currents that have swirled beneath the dramatic events at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) last week have gone largely unnoticed.
In a nutshell, this is the story at a purely political level: the ruling party tried to divide the Left by having the JNU Students Union President arrested over anti-India slogans raised by more radical students who were probably not of his party. In the bargain, it tried to paint Left student organizations in general as anti-national. However, rather than divide the Left, the arrest has brought about broad opposition unity – not just among that University’s student bodies, but at a national level.
On Saturday evening, top Left leaders, including Sitaram Yechury and D Raja, shared the mike with Congress Vice-president Rahul Gandhi at a huge public meeting at JNU. That is not all. Even though some of the academics and others who spoke at that public meeting pointed a finger at the UPA government’s record, the Left leaders did not. There appeared to be very positive vibes between the three parties’ leaders.
The currents of opposition unity did not stop with that. The Left leaders reported in their speeches that they had asked Delhi’s state government to institute a magisterial inquiry into the authenticity of the evidence produced against the arrested JNU student leaders. It was announced a little later during the meeting that such an inquiry has been instituted. Thus, the issue had brought another current, that of the Aam Aadmi Party, into the unity swirl.
That is bad news for the ruling party, on the eve of the budget session – particularly when economic indicators call for urgent revival. Nor does it augur well for the series of important elections that are coming up over the next year-and-a-half.
At a political level, that public meeting was significant for one more reason. Rahul Gandhi spoke so well that he won over an audience that was no more than marginally pro-Congress. I for one have never been an admirer, but I was impressed.
He struck a chord by saying at the outset that we welcome even those who are shouting slogans in the corner. They have a right to speak their minds. He spoke of the inclusive spirit of India, in which every voice has space – especially that of the poor and deprived. What frightens `them,’ he said to thunderous applause, is that more and more Indians are getting a voice.
'Bol raha hai,' a student next to me exclaimed, slightly wide-eyed. ('He’s speaking quite well,’ seemed to be the import.) Another student said a couple of minutes later: 'Improve ho gaya hai, yaar’ – slightly incredulous. While the Left leaders had been at the mike, some students had speculated on whether Gandhi would speak at all, or just sit there and leave.
In some senses, it was the toughest audience Indira Gandhi’s grandson could have hoped to impress. More significant, it was an audience from which some of the movers and shapers of tomorrow’s India will emerge. Currently, it is an audience with mobile phones that will reach various corners of the country.
Apart from a score of protestors who waved black ribbons and incessantly chanted slogans against Gandhi, the thousands of others there seemed to have open minds. They were there to listen, willing to be persuaded, but also wanting to know, even question. Walking around the campus later that evening, one passed many students discussing the pros and cons of what had happened.
One fact was absolutely clear: they cared deeply about their University, its ethos and traditions. The chant of `J, N, U’ was strident during that public meeting.
I had got to the University just as that public meeting outside the Vice-chancellor’s office was getting going. I did not know there was to be a public meeting. I had hoped to find out more about what had happened earlier in the week. When I waded into the throng and asked what was happening, I was told Rahul Gandhi had just arrived.
There were thousands of students there. `They are only twenty,’ one student standing near me remarked to another soon after I arrived. I realized she was talking of the group waving black ribbons and yelling slogans lustily in one corner. They were indeed no more than a score, but their purpose was clearly to disrupt through the ceaseless noise of sloganeering.
They were assured of disproportionate projection, for a lot of media cameras crowded behind and before them. As soon as Rahul Gandhi had finished speaking, those who had been shouting slogans against him went to his cavalcade of vehicles. The media cameras scampered after them, eager to capture the fracas that might ensue when he got into his car. Apparently, he left another way.
The Congress has never had a strong presence in this University’s student politics. The Left has been strong, but divided. The student wings of the CPI(M), the CPI, the CPI(ML) and other groups have contested each other. However, traditional Marxism has become less salient, even as Dalit politics has gained prominence in recent years, in universities across the country.
So, student leaders of Left parties have felt challenged to give political space to Dalit and extreme Left groups, including Maoists. They have also responded to demands for self-determination raised by some students from places like Kashmir – who now study at universities across the country in larger numbers than before.
In giving space to mark the anniversary of Afzal Guroo’s hanging, the student leaders opened themselves to conservative wrath. The government took the opportunity to attack the Left-oriented politics of the JNU community in general – by arresting JNUSU President Kanhaiya Kumar on Friday, although he had just the previous day clearly dissociated himself from the objectionable slogans, and declared the students’ commitment to the unity and integrity of India.
Right or wrong, it was a political decision. The calculations must have been complex. On the one hand, they did not want to target Kashmiris at a time of great political suspense over forming a state government in Kashmir. On the other, they were eager to present the broad range of student groups whom they categorize as `Leftist’ as anti-national and illegitimate.
Political calculations would have been influenced by the extremely negative optics for the ruling party of Rohith Vemula’s suicide in Hyderabad. The BJP urgently needed to rebrand student dissidence as anti-national, seditious and anti-Hindu rather than as protesting the oppression of Dalits and the poor.
The most important political advantage of this sort of rebranding would be to make mainstream Left parties, mainly the CPI and the CPI(M), wary of getting involved with movements of more radical Left groups – which could, in elections, enhance their vote share in alliance.
JNUSU President Kanhaiya Kumar belongs to the CPI-affiliated AISF. By having him arrested and charged with sedition, the ruling party might have hoped to put the relatively centrist CPI on the back-foot, and get it (and the CPIM) to keep away from more radical groups.
Instead, it has brought these Left parties closer to the Congress on the one hand, and the AAP on the other. The arrests have certainly earned the government great popularity among its core Hindutva nationalist supporters. But in the minefield of political alignments, the ruling party may have shot itself in the foot.