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A Better Fighting Chance? How JNU Students Are Viewing Kanhaiya Kumar's Shift to Congress

While some feel that Congress will give the firebrand leader a better chance to fight BJP, others at his former university feel the decision is at odds with his leftist background.

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Note: This article was first published on September 29, 2021 and was republished on September 30, 2021.

New Delhi: Kanhaiya Kumar’s entry into Congress has spurred active debate on the campus of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, where left-wing political organisations often dominate the union. 

While some feel that it was a wise decision as only the Congress can defeat the Bharatiya Janata Party, some others are disappointed.

The former Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union president had made headlines as a firebrand student leader after the 2016 sedition row. In 2018, he had joined the Communist Party of India. After over three years in CPI, he officially joined the Congress yesterday, September 28. Independent Vadgam MLA and Dalit rights activist Jignesh Mevani, who also has a past in leftist politics, also announced support to Congress at the same event.

Current JNUSU vice-president Saket Moon says that Kumar joining the Congress will result in dilution of the ideology he believes in. Moon had campaigned for Kumar during the 2019 general elections when he was contesting from the Begusarai seat in Bihar. 

Even though he lost to Giriraj Singh of the BJP, he came second, securing close to 22% of the vote share.

“His entry into Congress is disappointing. I went to Bihar and campaigned for him in 2019, even though I was not in CPI because he represented a possibility of a stronger left,” Moon said, while speaking to The Wire.

Moon is a member of the Democratic Students’ Federation (DSF), which is part of the ‘united left’ in the university since 2018. This a group which includes the All India Students’ Federation (AISF), where Kumar kick-started his political journey as a student in the Patna College of Commerce.

Also read: With Jignesh Mevani and Kanhaiya Kumar, Rahul Gandhi Asserts His Vision For Congress

Kumar is not the first JNUSU president to go and join the Congress, Moon says. “Several former JNU presidents have joined the Congress before and have been co-opted to maintain the status quo. Joining Congress may look like a short cut, but his own ideology will get diluted,” Moon adds.

He added that the Congress has not been able to provide a secular opposition to the BJP. 

In a statement, the DSF also said that Kumar’s entry into the Congress comes as an “anti-climax.” 

CPI leader Kanhaiya Kumar addresses a rally against CAA and NRC, in Muzaffarpur, Saturday, February 1, 2020. Photo: PTI

DSF secretary Sarika Chaudhary and president Swati Singh further say in the statement that the Congress’s purported inability to lead an effective opposition against the Modi-led BJP government at the Centre is contributing to the rise of the Rashtriya Swayansevak Sangh and BJP. 

“In contrast, the Left movement in JNU represents the urge for progressive and radical social transformation in India to liberate the masses from majoritarian subjugation of Brahmanical Hindutva, caste and gender oppression and economic exploitation,” the statement says.

‘Left movement not dependent on any one face’

National president of the All India Students’ Association (AISA) and former JNUSU president from 2018-2019, N. Sai Balaji says that the left movement will not be weakened as it is not dependent on any one face. 

“We have seen how the left emerged as a powerful force in the previous Bihar assembly elections. They used common people’s issues and made them into election issues,” Balaji says to The Wire

Also read: How a Reinvented Left Is Gaining Electoral Significance in Poll-Bound Bihar

The media portrays the left as only limited to one or two faces, which is not true. The left has risen in spite of so many challenges, and any one individual cannot weaken it,” the PhD student adds.

Stepping stone

But members of the AISF, which follows the ideology of the CPI, of which Kumar was a member for over three years, say they are not surprised. 

Santosh Kumar, convenor in the AISF’s JNU wing says, “If he thinks that joining a mainstream party after having been actively involved in student politics will be good for his political career, it is his decision and he must follow it.” 

He added that for many young leaders, campus activism is a stepping stone for mainstream politics. 

The left has been skeptical of Congress and Kumar, too, has on several occasions criticised the National Students’ Union of India, the youth wing of the Congress, says Prashant Kumar, president of the NSUI’s JNU wing.

“But fundamentally, we believe in the same values and principles,” he says, adding Kumar will play an important role in resisting the BJP’s attack on democracy, constitutional values and secularism.

Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya in JNU. Photo: PTI/Files

‘Left understandably disappointed’

“Since 2016, he has been at the forefront of the struggle against BJP, and Congress will give him a better fighting chance. Even if all left organisations unite, they will not be able to defeat the BJP. Only the Congress can do that,” the NSUI leader says.

In the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad camp, the sentiment is the opposite. Members of the organisation, affiliated to the RSS, feel that by inducting Kumar, Congress has “proven” that it is “anti-national.”

Aditya Nigam, an academic from the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, is among those who have followed Kumar’s journey in politics from close quarters. 

He says, “The left is understandably disappointed because they had made a hero out of him. But saying that his ideologies have changed is incorrect as he has joined a party that is currently out of power to put up a fight against the BJP in the days to come. It will not be comfortable for him.”

Nigam says that in spite of all the issues in the Congress, it is the only party that still has a chance against the BJP. 

He adds that by giving former Congress chief Rahul Gandhi a photo of Mahatma Gandhi, B.R. Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh, Kumar has kept his political ideology “more or less intact.” 

While Kumar is expected to be a key campaigner for Congress in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, that JNU students and student leaders will be among keen watchers of Kumar’s political presence goes without saying.