I was born in Calcutta. But in this poll season, I belong – in my heart and intellect – to Bihar. The state has given us Kanhaiya Kumar and it has long shown us Ravish Kumar. In a world filled with lies and propaganda, how come two unlikely heroes have emerged from Bihar? There was once a time when the state was known as one with high poverty, illiteracy and a host of other ills. It was known for being a part of BIMARU states, although who could possibly forget its long history of producing revolutionaries? A contradiction of sorts.
Has something changed? The state still gets featured in the news for all the wrong reasons: the horrific incidents in child shelters, the deaths of school children after consuming food served in a mid-day meal and regular floods. But this poll season, Bihar has been in the news for all the right reasons – and not because of Nitish babu.
First, Kanhaiya Kumar. The young student-leader-turned-politician has changed the game of Indian elections. He is fighting the polls under a Left party ticket, but what is notable is that he raised election funds – a total of Rs 70 lakhs as per the limit set by the Election Commission – through crowdfunding. In India, when election season sees crores being spent by a party in making arrangements so that their chief rhetorician can pontificate, what Kanhaiya has done is no small feat.
Where does he get this kind of audacity? This is not a rhetorical question but a genuine one. He stands at street corners and at village chaupals in Begusarai with marigold garlands draped around his neck, and says things that Indian politicians have rarely uttered in recent years.
The son of an anganwadi worker, Kanhaiya’s fight for education and social mobility had taken him from JNU to Tihar, but he would put Cicero to shame with his speeches that have the quicksilver wit and passion of a born rhetorician. However, unlike a seasoned rhetorician, Kanhaiya knows and believes in what he says.
He has known discrimination, state repression and has been to jail. He has been weathered in the fire of injustice and oppression, so when he speaks of justice, there is a ring of truth in his simple but powerful words. In an increasingly polarised polity, Kanhaiya talks of community, of fighting together and he also speaks of his fears. He knows he is up against mighty foes but whether he loses or wins, when Kanhaiya Kumar goes marching in, I want to follow in his footsteps.
Then there is Ravish Kumar. He has been around for some time, doing his job and getting better at it. He gives tough competition to his media compatriots. In a recent interview, he was asked about making enemies and whether he was afraid. The simplicity of his answer took my breath away. He said he was human, and therefore, afraid.
But fear won’t stop him from asking questions because whether someone wins or loses an election, the truth will always remain true. And given that Indian elections are fought with nefarious sources of money, it was his job to ask impudent and uncomfortable questions. He wanted everyone to do their jobs well, as he was trying to do his.
In the down-to-earth arrogance of these two men who brush away their fears, I feel this election has thrown us two amazing and unlikely Goliaths. They are the best products of what I call a regional cosmopolitanism, men and women who are deeply rooted to their language and their soil yet whose sophistication and intelligence have had little truck with the hierarchies of English-speaking metropolitan culture.
This kind of cosmopolitanism has been shaped and produced in the furnace of some of the best ideas that this country has to offer: a deeply held belief in the values of our constitution, an inherent belief in the equality of genders, a hatred of caste and a contempt for corrupt practices in our public life.
The two men from Bihar are thinking articulate men, not Sophists but Stoics, who plod on irrespective of their personal setbacks, but whose humanity and courage dazzle with every word they utter. It is small wonder then that in this poll season I belong to Bihar.
Debjani Sengupta teaches at the Department of English, Indraprastha College, Delhi University.