With a black jacket draped over his shoulders, and two microphones clutched in his hands, Kanhaiya Kumar — on his return to the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi from jail in March 2016 — delivered a defiant speech, attacking the government that had slapped a case of sedition against him, turning him into a household name.
Three years later, Kanhaiya is back home in Bihar’s Begusarai, armed with a bitterly fought ticket from the Communist Party of India (CPI).
As he moves from village to village, the 32-year-old embodies at once the hopes of a beleaguered Left looking to restore its lost glory and the challenge of a student leader trying to negotiate the distance between the campus that nurtured his politics and his home.
This distance isn’t one that can be expressed, or understood, purely in terms of the 1,170 kilometres that lie in between and Kumar is well aware of this. At the university, the issues revolve around ideas, he said, adding, “But in national politics, things that you feel are unnecessary, have to be dealt with based on pragmatism which may clash with your ideals.” An argument on religion and its rationale can take place within the confines of the university, but in mainstream politics, he said, “people will react, rather than understand”.
This isn’t a new realisation for him. As early as the speech in JNU, that confirmed his status among supporters as the ‘revolutionary’ voice they had been waiting for, and gave rise to the ‘tukde tukde gang’ tag among his detractors, Kumar had articulated this very binary. “I realised one thing in jail,” he said. “We the people of JNU speak in civilised voices, but we use heavy terminologies… perhaps it doesn’t reach the common man.”
Through this campaign, Kumar is trying to bridge this gap between ideals and pragmatism. His social media presence is scarce and he’d rather have it grow “organically”. But on March 3, while paying tribute to Pintu Kumar Singh, a CRPF inspector who died during the February Pulwama terrorist attack, Kumar dubbed Begusarai as having “repeatedly sacrificed lives for the country” in a Facebook post, alongside photographs of him saluting the fallen soldier.
Flipping the anti-national barb that has so often been aimed at him, he accused the BJP of “hollow patriotism”.
“Soldiers are fighting at the border and Prime Minister Narendra Modi is busy making his booth stronger,” he wrote.
He had taken on the BJP’s nationalism plank earlier too, after returning to JNU. “I am a patriot but not a nationalist. Nationalism is a European concept. India is a land of diversity — she has no one uniform identity,” he said.
In January last year, during the Yuva Hunkar rally — a protest by young leaders against the Centre, in Delhi — Kumar alluded to Tulsidas and Ramayana to attack the BJP.
“The RSS regards Tulsidas as a great poet,” he said.
“I want to ask the RSS: the same poet had also said that Ravan fought on a chariot while Ram took him on his bare feet. What was then (LK) Advani ji doing on a chariot?”
This, his party colleagues and aides said, was something he did often. Not rejecting religion, but using the vocabulary of Hindu texts to attack the RSS and BJP. “Like so many others in Bihar, he grew up with these tales and this allows him to make the political ideology of the Left more palatable to common people,” said one AISF leader from JNU.
According to Kumar, the breakdown in talks between the RJD-Congress alliance and the CPI, isn’t just because of RJD scion Tejahswi Yadav’s alleged discomfort with him or caste considerations, but because “RJD doesn’t want to let go of a seat, where vote calculations show that the CPI can win,” he said, adding, “All allies said that Begusarai should be given to the CPI.”
The CPI had pointed out to the RJD that in 2014, even at the height of the saffron wave, the party was able to get nearly two lakh votes on the seat that had once been referred to as the ‘Leningrad of Bihar’.
The RJD, that had finished second with 34 per cent of the votes, remained unmoved and nominated their 2014 candidate Tanveer Hassan.
The RJD’s refusal to budge, many in the CPI argued, stemmed not just from future considerations but also the past. The Left party had, after all, been synonymous with the state’s politics in the decades after Independence.
From Karyanand Sharma who led the Sathi farm struggles in Champaran to Bhogendra Jha who led the fight against mahants and zamindars in Mithila, going on to win the parliamentary
elections seven times.
Kumar’s prime challenge though, he believes, will be the BJP’s candidate: Union minister and controversial leader Giriraj Singh, who publicly expressed his unhappiness at not being given a ticket from his bastion at Nawada and accused the party of “violating” his trust”. A triangular fight though, Kanhaiya said, was unlikely. “There is no middle ground. The media has also made it into a presidential election,” he said.
SON OF THE SOIL
For Kanhaiya, who claims to have covered 215 of the 257 panchayats in Begusarai, his political hopes rest on the “son of the soil” sentiment and perhaps his biggest challenge is what he, euphemistically, refers to as the “Muslim issue”.
Narrating how people in Begusari began a campaign – “Neta nahi beta (Not a leader, but a son),” he said. “This election is all about pro-Modi and anti-Modi. But that said, in Begusarai, it’s less political and more emotional. They relate to me.” That “one of their own was jailed and on top was labelled an anti-national. They think their district was shamed…this is a very strong sentiment here,” he said.
There remained, though, people who are unhappy with the government, but it isn’t enough for them to vote against Modi, he said. “But, their anger towards Muslims supersedes their anger towards the government. They are happy since they believe that Modi has come and fixed the ‘Muslim problem.’ This is the sentiment and it’s shocking,” he added.
For months, Kanhaiya Kumar has been in the thick of things. From Bihar to JNU, from JNU to jail, from jail to JNU, he has come full circle to Bihar. Here, among the people he grew up with and in the lanes he roamed as a young boy, the fledgling politician hopes that he can leave the world of student politics and chart a route to Parliament.
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