How Will Indian Politics Respond to the Kanhaiya Moment?

The Left parties must be alert to the risk of making Kanhaiya lose his freshness if he is made a poster boy of election rallies in West Bengal elections

JNUSU President Kanhaiya Kumar addresses students after reaching the JNU campus upon his release on bail, in New Delhi on Thursday. Credit: PTI Photo by Vijay Verma

The smiles and rapt looks say it all: JNUSU president Kanhaiya addressing his fellow students on campus following his release on bail on March 3. Credit: PTI

Until two months ago, about 5,000 JNU students were familiar with Kanhaiya Kumar’s political acumen and brilliant oratorical skills. Thanks to PM Narendra Modi and his incompetent ministers, Kanhaiya was heard live and in rapt attention by tens of millions of viewers across India on all TV channels simultaneously as he addressed the JNU students after getting interim bail from a court. Of course, he converted the rare opportunity — of a nation lending its ears — into a scathing political/ideological critique of the current regime. The speech itself was brilliantly nuanced, with breathtaking idioms and metaphors which seemed to have had a deep impact on the viewers. Needless to say, if the regime had not kept him jail for over two weeks, Kanhaiya would not have had the great stories to tell about his fascinating conversations while in custody with the police constables who ended up empathising with him.

The “Kanhaiya phenomenon” has already become a subject of widespread political comment and analysis. Mainstream parties are also assessing the impact of his ideas as well as political messaging among students across the country. Evidently, the sheer impact of his speech has rattled the BJP so much that there are reports about the party’s angry youth leaders announcing a cash reward for anyone who would cut off Kanhaiya’s tongue. Another radical outfit whose antecedents are not clear has put a reward of Rs.11 lakh for eliminating the JNU president. The BJP has reportedly suspended a Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM)leader who had offered a reward.

Meanwhile, the party president Amit Shah upped the ante by announcing at the national session of the Bhartiya Janata Yuva Morcha in Vrindavan last Saturday that “anti-national expression cannot pass in the name of freedom of expression”. The BJP continues to radicalise its youth wing on the lines of aggressive ultra nationalism.

The question now is this: how should the ideas Kanhaiya Kumar has unleashed among the students of JNU, which by now may have reached colleges across the country following his televised address, play out in the future. From his address and several interviews Kanhaiya has given, it is clear that he is talking about  a broad-based front going beyond party politics, to counter the Sangh Parivar ideology. “Rajneetik Kranti se zyada, samajik Kranti ki zaroorat hai“, that is, social revolution is more important than a political revolution. He makes it a point to include the gender equality issue as an integral part of this formulation. There is freshness and idealism in his thought process.

It is precisely for this reason that the political parties, whom Kanhaiya urges to form a broad front against the “oppressive” Hindutva forces, cannot afford to expose him prematurely to electoral politics. In short, his idealism must continue to communicate itself outside the party political system for some time to come. The Left parties must therefore be alert to the risk of making Kanhaiya lose his freshness if he is made to speak at rallies in West Bengal elections, where the BJP is almost non-existent. Kanhaiya campaigning against Mamata Banerjee, and not the BJP, may not be internally consistent with what he is saying in JNU.

Currently, Kanhaiya is going beyond the conventional framework of the organised Left by constantly emphasising that the Ambedkarite political thought be fused with that of Left politics. It is common knowledge that the organised left leadership in India has historically been uncomfortable with Ambedkar’s articulation of caste politics. E.M.S. Namboodiripad did not support Ambedkar’s idea of a separate electorate for Dalits under the Poona Pact. The Left also believed that the caste-based organisation of politics was vastly inferior to the one founded on class lines. Ambedkar always reminded the left leaders that they have to engage with the caste question directly at some time or the other. Indeed, all these years the left has not been able to brush it under the carpet. There has been debate on this within the left as its vote base has shrunk over the years. The reason why the left movement just could not make any meaningful impact in states with rigid caste politics, especially the Hindi heartland, was because its leadership had remained ambivalent on the caste question within the class politics.

So in the current context, as a young 28-year-old JNU student leader ignites the idea of a unity between Ambedkarite politics and the Left, he is essentially trying to transcend present-day party politics and urging all socially left of centre formations to join hands to defeat the Hindutva forces. He is also urging the left of centre formations to support the JNU students in their struggle.  His engagement with political parties must remain at this level for some time as the student movement consolidates around a broad struggle for the constitutional guarantee of basic freedoms. In fact, most of the students rallying behind Kanhaiya are not necessarily steeped in orthodox Left politics.

One is vaguely reminded of what celebrated Left historian Eric Hobsbawm had said about the students protest in Paris in 1968. He and other veteran communists, steeped in the ethos of inter-War and post-war communism, were at a loss to understand the nature of the spontaneous students’ protest against the establishment which was later joined by trade unions and government employees. In his book, Interesting Times, Hobsbawm describes with some fascination the amorphous nature of the Paris protests which older communists like him could not place in any fixed Left ideological setting. Hobsbawm comes up with an omnibus term and describes the students’ protest as a “blue jeans revolution” — large masses of students wearing blue jeans and seeking to express themselves freely against the government of the day. Well, cheap, locally made blue jeans have reached much of the youth of Rurban India. And Kanhaiya is probably articulating their collective urge for multiple freedoms. Much like what Hobsbawn said for the Paris protests, this one too may not fit into any neat ideological framework of the traditional Left. But the protests in JNU, University of Hyderabad and Jadhavpur University certainly represent a growing aversion to the politics of the Hindutva right which is seen as assaulting some of the basic freedoms guaranteed by the constitution. How all this plays out eventually in mainstream political terms may not be easy to predict at this stage.