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Kanhaiya Kumar: The Accidental Hero - April 11, 2019

Kanhaiya Kumar filed his nomination for the upcoming Lok Sabha election from the Begusarai constituency marking an official entry into the electoral foray. At the outset, I wish him all the best for his new political beginnings. As he filed his nomination papers, an otherwise electorally obscure constituency of Begusarai was flashing everywhere – from social media to mainstream electronic media – with the pictures of Kanhaiya and his supporters, joined also by likes of Jignesh Mevani and Shehla Rashid, rallying towards the nomination centre. The Kanhaiya’s journey from a president of JNU Student Union to now one of the most discussed political contender in the general elections is a curious one. There are very few student leaders, especially from JNU, who have been catapulted into the national politics so early and indeed so swiftly. To some extent, he has become a phenomenon, indeed a face of opposition to everything that is wrong with the government. But the core question is – what explains this phenomenon?

As one delves deeper to look carefully and objectively to understand what he has done to achieve this – one struggles to get a concrete answer. Neither is his political journey extraordinarily different or ‘revolutionary’ (the word which our communist counterparts love romanticizing with), nor is he an exceptionally sought after politician. What then explains his importance in the national politics? I argue that rather than anything inherent to him or his political journey so far, it is the fortuitous confluence of two factors for Kanhaiya which worked in his favour – first was a totally incapacitated opposition and second was a kneejerk government response to the JNU incident. To his credit, he was astute enough to use this to his benefit. This write-up attempts to contextualize the hyped heroism of Kanhaiya in political happenings around the above mentioned two points. Further, it asserts that far from representing the ‘politics of change’ as he is being hailed for, Kanhaiya personifies the same old politics of contradictions and opportunism which has been hallmark of Left in India.

Kanhaiya today has become a household name, thanks to the infamous JNU controversy in Feb, 2016 where it was alleged that under the garb of a ‘cultural evening’, students gathered to memorialize the convicted terrorist Afzal Guru and to celebrate his ‘martyrdom’. The ‘cultural gathering’ also involved sloganeering that challenged the integrity of the country by siding with insurgent Kashmiri secessionist. Along with others, Kanhaiya was charged with sedition for assisting and abetting the gathering where the alleged slogans were raised and was subsequently arrested. This arrest created the political platform for Kanhaiya from where the political ascent of Kanhaiya begins. His arrest was immediately met with a strong protest within the campus. The JNU incident already had gone viral, with videos of the events and the slogans of Azadi (independence of Kashmir from India) fast circulating on the social media. JNU was suddenly all over the news channels, in the prime time debates and discussion. As this happened, almost simultaneously narrative within the campus was consciously shifted from supporting the separatism to that of freedom of expression. Kanhaiya’s speech a couple of days after the incident where he is benignly seen to be calling for Azadi from all the social evils like caste system, communalism, feudalism among others - rather than Azadi to Kashmir - was circulated. This helped immensely in forging a narrative where government was accused of actually stifling the freedom of expression of ‘innocent students’ who are ‘peacefully protesting’ against the government. Two points become pertinent to probe – one, if at all it was it was just about the demands of ‘Azadi’ from caste system and communalism’ why the date of Afzal’s hanging was chosen for the ‘cultural event’. Second, Kanhaiya has apparently dissociated himself from ‘objectionable slogans if they were raised’. If it is true, how then the honest attempt to go to the root of the event where such objectionable slogans were raised amounts to the stifling of freedom of expression by the state. And what explains his presence in the gathering which numerous students seems to have witnessed. Indeed, it is bit more than just the assault on freedom of expression.

But in the midst of these ongoing developments, an entirely incapacitated opposition got a face to rally behind to corner government. Kanhaiya was soon made out to be the poor victim of the excess of an ‘almost fascist’ state which is hell bent of curbing all the voices of the descent. Opposition, this includes parties and organization of all the hues, swore their support to JNU and Kanhaiya as they flocked in the campus to get heard. Supporting Kanhaiya made political sense – after the intolerance drive, attack on freedom of expression was a good weapon to use against the government. Opposition parties which were made almost irrelevant in the parliament sought other avenues to attack the government. Consequently, tall leaders of all the major parties including the grand old Congress party, made it a point to visit JNU. Indeed, even Rahul Gandhi visited the campus in solidarity with the ‘JNUSU’. The otherwise erudite Shashi Tharoor went on to compare Kanhaiya with Bhagat Singh indeed.

What explains this frantic efforts to rally around a guy who was otherwise inconsequential? Beyond that, even the kind of politics Kanhaiya represents has no resonance with Congress’s stated ideological positions. Yet, you see the curious unconditional support extended to Kanhaiya since the time he was arrested. Also, it was limited not only to political parties, but the support poured in from cross section of civil society which was most prominently visible on social media. Oblivious of facts and political realities, Kanhaiya became the face behind which a homogenized opposition attempted to resurrect its dying narrative. Media houses provided him the prime time interview spaces and covered the launch of his book in most coveted of the places. Kanhaiya was projected as a ‘poster boy of resistance’ without he resisting anything substantial really.

What supplemented the opposition’s attempt was the kneejerk reactions of the government and also of its so called supporters. If only government had silently allowed the police proceedings, without overplaying this entire episode, the issue would not have received such importance. Opposing Kanhaiya was suddenly seen as a great act of patriotism and supporting nationalism. Attacking him in the court and obstructing the proceedings was not only an act of cowardice, it was also extremely counter-productive. It made a victim out of a Kanhaiya which only helped to build his ‘innocent image’. Campaign were started on social media against the JNU itself. Suddenly, those who had never stepped inside JNU became experts on it and started campaign to ‘shut it down’. In the process, they not only did a great disservice to a great institution like JNU, but also played into the narrative which was deliberately being woven to project government as attempting to suppress the dissenting voices.

As the opposition rallied around and made hero of a student leader, and it the process was helped by the attitude of government and its supporters, the political fortunes of Kanhaiya were soaring. Soon, Kanhaiya was seen addressing rallies across the country, was in almost all the literature festivals, and appeared on Conclaves of various news channels practically repeating the same old narrative. Even a casual attention to his speeches will reveal his high on rhetoric, low on substance’ deliverances. What is fascinating however is that from almost all such platforms, he continuously attacked government, made personal attacks on Prime Ministers, made unsubstantiated allegations on him and his ministers and yet lamented that there is no space to question the government. How very ironic! But that’s not the only contradiction, anyway. He famously called for Azadi from Caste-system but himself shows no record of actually fighting it. In fact, his own party comrade accused him of Class Discrimination and Casteism before quitting the party. Also, to bow down before Lalu Prasad and offer fulsome praise to him doesn’t speak good for Kanhaiya who ‘pretends’ to remove the evils of caste from the society. Also, he was bowing down to the same man who was Chief Minister when one of the most loved JNUSU president and an past member of AISF, the party to which Kanhaiya belongs, Chandrashekhar was murdered allegedly by the associates of the man who enjoyed close relations with Lalu Prasad. Arguably, his overtures with Lalu Prasad displeased some of his own comrades in the campus.

Kanhaiya’s support for freedom of expression also is conditional to those who tune his line. For his detractors, he is less concerned about as was evident from the way he behaved during the lecture of a prominent professor who opposed the kind of politics Kanhaiya and his ilk stand for during the ‘Nationalism Lectures’ which were held in what is now called as ‘Freedom Square’ in JNU. He is never seen condemning the violence which his ideological comrades wage on their opponents. Apparently, he was also punished by the University authorities for misbehaving with a female student who objected to his urinating in public. Alas, how well it speaks of man standing for gender justice, I wonder!

As Kanhaiya is ready to contest its first ever election from Begusarai, his will find it a home turf. Apart from being in the home district, Begusarai is also one of the rare places in India where the communist presence is sizable. Often referred as Leningrad of Bihar, Begusarai offers Kanhaiya a natural place to fight, to begin his revolution, if he intends to bring any. So far, a close scrutiny of his evolution suggest nothing but an ordinary student leader who was catapulted to a crusader purely due to political factors. Nothing so far suggests that he is exceptional political leader, but is mere a product of political developments. There is still long way for him to emerge as a true political leader with strong credentials. I wish him the best that he emerges one day.

- Prof. Akshay Ranade