The AAP government’s recent nod to Delhi Police to go ahead with the prosecution of Kanhaiya Kumar in a 2016 sedition case has triggered a debate, bringing the youth leader back into the spotlight. The decision came only a day after the 33-year-old former president of the JNU students’ union addressed a big rally in Patna as part of his statewide campaign against CAA-NRC-NPR in poll-bound Bihar. In an exclusive interview with Giridhar Jha, Kanhaiya talks about the sedition case, his defeat from Begusarai in last year’s general elections, and whether he is ready to head an alternative front ahead of the next assembly polls in his home state. Excerpts:
The Delhi government recently gave its sanction to the police in the sedition case against you. Did you suspect any political motive behind it?
It has been a political case from the very beginning. I had been waiting for a long time for the case to be either rejected or accepted so that the trial is held in a court of law, not on television. I thanked the Arvind Kejriwal government as its decision would ensure a trial in accordance with the laws of the land.
Did it not come as a surprise? The sanction, after all, had come from an AAP government, not a BJP government.
Politics is full of surprises. Politics has taught me in the past four years that it is not necessary for expected things to happen. The unexpected also happen along the way. The JNU incident (of February 9, 2016) was a landmark of sorts, but did I ever imagine I would be put in the jail on the basis of an unknown FIR? I was neither an organiser nor any competent authority to give permission for the event on campus. I was not even present when it happened. When I was kept in jail, all political parties except the BJP opposed it. Even Shiv Sena, in its mouthpiece, called it wrong. But when I joined mainstream politics later, those who looked like friends started making strange remarks. Shiv Sena leader Sanjay Raut said my defeat (in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls) should be ensured even if EVMs need to be fixed. Later, there was talk of larger unity of the Opposition at the national level in order to safeguard the Constitution. I had travelled across the country, addressing multiple rallies on different platforms, pressing the need for a united front against the BJP. But it did not happen. There was no mahagathbandhan even in my own constituency (Begusarai) and I lost the election. The margin of defeat—more than 4 lakh votes—turned out to be a surprise as well. After losing the election, I decided to do the ground work in Bihar. Against all odds, I recently criss-crossed 4,000 km and held 62 rallies in 38 districts. Only a day after organising a successful rally in Patna on February 27, this sanction came. My entire political journey has been so full of surprises that I have stopped getting surprised.
You said most parties turned against you when you decided to join mainstream politics. Why should they be wary of the entry of a young student leader?
Whenever a new force emerges, all existing forces unite to oppose it. It is the rule of the evolutionary process. It is difficult to tell friend from foe.
You will, of course, fight the sedition case legally now, but how will you fight it on the political front?
Legally, the case does not hold. There are hundreds of loopholes in it. That is why I have demanded speedy trial by a fast-track court. There is no ground for a case against me. It is a political case lodged merely to reap political benefits. The timing of such cases is always decided with a view to take advantage in the war of perception. The police filed the chargesheet for the first time on January 19 last year after I decided to contest the Lok Sabha polls. Now, this sanction has come when Bihar is going for polls this year. It clearly indicates the motives behind it. However, I am confident that the facts will come out from the trial and the country will get to know the truth through the court.
What are the main charges against you?
I am yet to get the official chargesheet, but according to earlier charges pressed by the police, which are yet to get the nod of the court, the so-called slogans (against the country) were made in my presence. Incidentally, when the police filed the chargesheet, they conveniently forgot to take the mandatory permission of the government for prosecution!
You have undertaken a yatra across Bihar and held many rallies in an election year. What has been your overall experience from an electoral perspective?
I did not travel across Bihar from any electoral perspective in the first place, so it would not be right for me to comment from that point of view. People from all walks of life, from all castes, communities and classes, came to my rallies. Women also turned up in large numbers. The response was energetic and raised new hopes.
What are your plans for the assembly polls due later this year?
I have no individual plans as such for the elections. I have been saying this for long, not because of the court case now. All through my yatra, I had specifically highlighted that it had nothing to do with the polls. There has been a tradition of undertaking yatras ahead of elections, but I did not want to fall for it. We are only trying to do something different. Elections will happen the way they happen and our party will also contest, but I do not want to invest my energies there.
Bihar has witnessed a direct contest between the Nitish Kumar-led NDA and the Laloo Prasad-led alliance in the past few elections. Is there any possibility of the emergence of a third front this year under your leadership?
I don’t think so. Political front and electoral front should not be different. But new electoral fronts have been made because of mere disagreement over seat-sharing. A political front must have a common minimum programme and an ideological framework. I find such a front missing in Bihar. The country’s politics is such that we don’t know who is with whom and who is fighting against whom. Any third or fourth electoral front will come into being only on the question of seat-sharing and I am not interested in such arrangements. The country is politically polarised today. On one side, there are followers of Mahatma Gandhi, Bhimrao Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh, and, on the other, there are those who follow Nathuram Godse. It makes sense if a front is made on these lines, otherwise it is meaningless. As far as issues pertaining to polls or future alliances are concerned, my party takes those decisions. I am neither interested nor do I have any authority to speak on them.
So you are steering clear of what you consider to be opportunistic pre-poll alliances?
I am trying to build issue-based politics in Bihar. That’s what I am primarily interested in. As far as elections are concerned, the party will take the decisions. It is in favour of a mahagathbandhan of opposition parties. I don’t believe in politics revolving around personalities and am not in the race for chief ministership.
Personality-centric politics has invariably put issue-based politics in the shade in Bihar and elsewhere in recent decades. Given a chance, would you mind leading any alliance spearheaded by the Left in the elections ahead?
The CPI has never fallen victim to any personality cult. There is no discussion about it in our party. Let others do it, but we are not interested in it at all. Of course, we would like a big anti-BJP front to take shape. As far as ideological battle in politics is concerned, there is a vacuum in Bihar that needs to be filled. We want employment, roads, electricity and migration to emerge as key poll issues. We are aspiring for that, but it will take time. The problem with the country’s politics is that everybody, whether a common man or a political commentator, reduces democracy to elections. Elections are only one aspect of democracy. We should also discuss how to democratise society and what should be the process of doing it.
After your defeat from Begusarai in the last parliamentary polls, many political experts believed the presence of RJD candidate Tanveer Hassan in the fray spoiled your chances against BJP nominee Giriraj Singh?
Whatever happens, it happens for good. If there is a negative side of politics, there is a positive one too. Even in such a bad phase, something positive must have come out. The worst times, as somebody wrote, are also the best times. If our democratic and multi-party system gets over the bad phase, our democracy will emerge stronger, otherwise there will be anarchy. It does not matter if there was no alliance. We cannot predict everything. We are already seeing the results. People will also see the results if there is no alliance in the Vidhan Sabha elections as well. What I am trying to highlight is that elections are not everything. I was in student politics of which both victory and defeat are integral parts. Activism is important. But, outside the university campus, I find it missing in mainstream politics. Elections are held routinely, but how politics will change holds the key. People like me will not have space anyway, but what will be the fate of democracy if the son of the king becomes the next king? Can it remain a democracy? Democracy should not be procedural, but participatory. It has been observed wherever democracy is relatively stronger. It is good for democracy if an ordinary man rises up and contributes to a democratic setup.
Dynastic politics has been an ineluctable part of Indian democracy over the years. Do you observe any change in the situation now?
Nothing will change at the top level. Basically, we have to change our outlook. The BJP is now full of dynasts, like the Congress. Union home minister Amit Shah made his son the secretary of the BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India). How many of them can speak against dynasty now? And why look at politics in isolation. Why don’t we talk about Hindi cinema, the media, the bureaucracy, the medical field, civil society groups? It is wrong to believe that our political system can be democratic even if we fail to democratise society.
So many people lost their lives in the Delhi riots recently? What is your take on the violent turn of events in the national capital?
They could be killed anywhere. Human beings are being converted into potential rioters these days. The way things are being served everywhere, on phones and TV, all this misinformation, fake news, hatred…anything can happen anytime, anywhere. It has become important for the government to keep people engaged in negative things and divert their minds from the basic questions. How painful and worrisome is the fact that one unemployed youth is committing suicide or takes ill every hour now, as a recent survey claims? Altogether 3.16 crore jobs have been lost in the past five years, and another 18 lakh will go this year. GDP growth has plummeted to 4.7 per cent, the lowest in a long time. Besides, the government has also declined to provide data on unemployment. In every other city, a new ghetto is coming up every day without the basic amenities. Recently, we ran out of stocks of masks and sanitisers after China was hit by coronovirus. What will happen if this virus spreads across India? Look at the way the question of people’s existence is being dealt with today. Some would say it is not a new phenomenon, but how can we claim to be in the 21st century if the same things have been recurring for the past 70 years. Some things just have to be changed. There should be new challenges and new questions in life. How long can we keep repeating the same mistakes?
The scenario, according to you is bleak, but are you hopeful for a turnaround in the near future?
Things are bound to change. The question is how much destruction will happen in the course of reconstruction. Our efforts are directed towards minimising that destruction. How can society move from chaos to stability with minimum conflicts and violence is the big question. Change is a universal truth, but what will be its direction? As an educated youth, I am aware of my responsibilities, whether in the capacity of a student, a citizen, an academician or a political activist, and I am trying to do that.
What do you think is the biggest threat before the nation today?
We were emotionally strong, but faced materialistic threats in the past. Today, we face both emotional and materialistic threats. We were deprived of food earlier, but there was unity and love at home. There was also a community feeling in society. People used to contribute to get someone’s daughter married. Nowadays, we need love along with rotis. However, roti alone will not suffice as it will not fulfil our cerebral needs. That appetite has gone up. Today, we need love and peace as much as bread and butter. This is the biggest challenge.
How do you think we can reach the stage where it could be possible?
We need to redefine the question of individuality. The idea of collective and the idea of individuality of the industrial time have both changed in the mobile phone era. How to take society forward through minimal clashes, by protecting both the idea of individuality and the idea of collective, is our biggest challenge. Our boys and girls should be free, but they should also be emotionally attached to their families. They should not detach themselves from their families for the sake of freedom; otherwise they will not have anyone by their side in times of crisis. These days, some people are paying Rs 500 just to listen to good things at a religious discourse, while others are coughing up the same amount for a comedy show. You may question the satsang-going people, but they can also ask why the youth can’t laugh without spending money these days. That is the crisis we are facing today. We have to somehow find a convergence point in this transformative era and consolidate society in a new framework so that collective structures and institutions remain safe and the question of individuality is also addressed.
Can an alternative leadership be visualised at the national level in the near future?
It is not just about leadership. I am hinting at the need for a new political system to emerge. There is need for a political paripaati (tradition), not just the party. All the questions that our generation is facing today, right from marriage and caste to the idea of freedom, which includes sexuality and identity, are not even engaged with today, let alone addressed, by our political system. The mandir-masjid discourse belongs to the times of the British, who used it to divide us on the basis of our religious identities. The country was divided on the same question of Hindu and Muslim, but will that be the central thesis in the 21st century? No, it cannot be. It means there is a diversion. Such things are being propagated so we do not get to see this contradiction. The real questions lie elsewhere.
The Bihar assembly passed a resolution against NRC-NPR before your Patna rally? Some political observers felt it was done to blunt your campaign.
We are not interested in ownership. There is no ownership of an idea, slogan or movement. Physics has moved far ahead from the time Newton saw an apple falling on the ground. We should not get bogged down in the question of ownership. I take it as a big political message that the resolution was passed by a government in which the BJP happens to be a coalition partner. However, the complete victory will happen only after the NPR gazette notification is annulled. We are yet to attain that goal.
What about your protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act? Will they continue?
Naa rahegi baans, naa bajegi baansuri. If NPR does not happen, CAA in itself will not affect anybody living in India. But if you see it under a statutory framework, it is against the fundamentals of the Constitution. You cannot exclude any religion because our Constitution is secular.
Your emergence on the political scene has given a fresh lease of hope to the CPI. The party used to be a force to reckon with in Bihar, but somehow lost its support base in the past few decades? Do you agree?
Can anyone deny that the base of Left parties has weakened in Bihar? We will have to hold a separate session to spell out the reasons behind it. It is a long story. Some people say it happened because the CPI could not crack the caste equation. But why did the Left collapse in Russia? Was there a caste angle there too? It was a global ideology that emerged at the global level and was also weakened at the global level. Now, it is also emerging in a new manner at the international level. Bernie Sanders, who calls himself a democratic socialist, has just won a state in the US presidential primaries and may well emerge as the official candidate of the Democrats.