In his speech made immediately after being released on bail, Kanhaiya Kumar had spoken about an epiphany he had in jail when he was being served his meal. The plate had two bowls, he said – one red and the other blue. “While I do not believe in destiny, that I do not know God either, (I thought) something good is sure to happen soon in this country,” he said. “That plate seemed like India to me, the blue bowl seemed like the Ambedkarite movement to me and that red bowl seemed like the colour of… (revolution).”
Since then, he has developed the theme further. At a meeting the other day, the JNU student leader called upon left parties to develop a “new language”. “We can’t establish a movement by shouting only the names of men. We must raise slogans with names of women in our movement too. It should be representative of different castes, religions, genders, languages in our movement,” he told the comrades at a meeting in Ajoy Bhavan, the headquarters of the Communist Party of India.
This may sound unexceptional to anyone who follows or believes in progressive politics, but in truth, Kanhaiya is making quite a radical suggestion. Leftists in India have remained caste-blind, initially believing in the idea of class struggle and then, even while Dalit politics began coming into its own, tending to look the other way. In one of those ironies that will forever be studied by historians of Indian politics, the dominant Left party, the CPM preferred the Samajwadi Party of Mulayam Singh Yadav, champion of upwardly mobile Yadavs, as a partner rather than Mayawati and the Bahujan Samaj Party, in many ways a natural ally.
This infatuation with Mulayam was born out of a similar enthusiasm for V.P. Singh, progenitor of Mandal politics in India, which in turn, emerged from a deep anti-Congressism which the CPM has still not been able to shed. Witness the internal struggles as the CPM plays coy at joining hands with the Congress not just in West Bengal but also in any possible national anti-BJP coalition. Even the cohabitation with UPA-I was marked by uneasiness and at times petulant opposition to the Congress because the CPM just couldn’t come to terms with partnering Manmohan Singh’s government. And yet, these were the very folks who had no ideological problems providing a crutch to V.P. Singh while he leaned on the BJP at the same time.
In this process, over the decades, the CPM and the left in general have completely failed to understand the emergence of genuine Dalit politics in India. Instead of seeing it in broader terms – as the self-assertion of the most oppressed classes cutting across region, language and even religion – the Left continued with a blinkered and narrowly ideological view and missed out on building a natural alliance with Dalits.
Now the opportunity is gone. Mayawati for one is not going to trust the Left, even if she thinks she needs them. The high point of Left presence in Parliament and in the assemblies is gone, at least for the time being. Even in their bastions such as Kerala and certainly in West Bengal, the left parties are fighting to remain relevant. And the longing for an anti-Congress, anti-BJP front that will include – perhaps even be led by – Mulayam Singh Yadav has not really gone.
Kanhaiya’s vision should be seen in that context. He is not an influential player in the CPI, forget in the Left in general. But sometimes big ideas come out of the mouth of babes. It is time to start looking at creating an umbrella that includes not just the red and the blue but – and this is the logical next frontier – the green too.
For the Left, the vast numbers of Muslims in the country have been as much a blind spot as the Dalits. And yet, it is not all that illogical. The Left remains committed to secularism, even as the Congress occasionally becomes wishy-washy on the subject. In any case, Muslims have long turned their backs on the Congress even if there is some grudging admission that it will not indulge in such blatant anti-minorityism as we are seeing today. On the other hand, there were no communal riots in West Bengal during the Left Front rule.
Asaduddin Owaisi of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen is positioning himself as the true representative of Muslims, but not everyone is impressed. He scored in the Maharashtra elections but was roundly rebuffed in Bihar. There is suspicion that he and the BJP work to a pre-arranged script; certainly, his hardline views allow the BJP to point fingers and portray him as the typical representative of the “Muslim community.”
Dalits and Muslims are trying – in pockets such as Maharashtra – to come together. Behenji has on occasion won the support of UP Muslims, but hasn’t fully been able to leverage it. This is where the Left can play the catalyst and even the glue, creating a broad front of the most oppressed groups. This will not just deepen the Left’s influence but also usher in a new kind of politics that gives voice to those who are ignored and exploited because there is no one to speak for them.