There is a reason Bihat-Masnadpur is still called ‘Little Moscow’, a throwback to the times when the USSR was a Communist beacon and this village a hotbed of the Left movement in Bihar. It is the birthplace of comrade Chandrashekhar Singh (1915-76), the torchbearer of Left ideology in this region and a popular CPI leader who put Bihat-Masnadpur on India’s political map. It is also home to Kanhaiya Kumar. The brash, tambourine-playing, azaadi-seeking young leader loved and reviled in equal measure depending on which side of the political spectrum one stands. An upholder of secularism and democratic traditions, they say. For others, an anti-national and a leader of the ‘tukde-tukde gang’ hell bent on breaking up the country (what he will gain by this, however, they won’t tell). An icon of hope; a symbol of anarchy. A towering leader in the making; an overhyped student activist. Kanhaiya Kumar is all that and more. And he is here to stay.
“The perception about me (of being an anti-national) that was created in the minds of people is getting shattered,” Kanhaiya, 33, tells Outlook. “People are realising that I am talking about the country’s welfare, about development, equality, employment, which are in the larger interest of society, not against the nation. It is proving to be a big setback to those who have invested so much to create such a perception against me.” It was at JNU, where he was then the students’ union president, that Kanhaiya shot into the limelight with a sedition case slapped against him and spent about a month in Tihar Jail for his “azaadi” speech in February 2016. Four years later, on February 28, Delhi’s AAP government gave its nod to the Delhi Police to prosecute Kanhaiya. This came a day after Kanhaiya ended a month-long statewide yatra in Bihar organised by a largely apolitical front of about 100 organisations against CAA, NRC and NPR, which concluded with a rally in Patna. Bihar goes to the polls in October-November and Kanhaiya will be fighting his battle on two fronts, political and legal. He is not too concerned though and says the case won’t stand the scrutiny of the court (See interview). But electoral politics is something else, and Kanhaiya’s chastening loss to the BJP’s Giriraj Singh in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls—by over four lakh votes —is a constant reminder of this harsh fact.
The Bihar elections will put Kanhaiya’s leadership abilities and organisational skills to the litmus test. It will decide whether he has what it takes to be a political hero or else end up as a mere flicker, unworthy of the hype and halo around his persona. The challenges are formidable. His foremost task will be to resurrect his party—the CPI’s traditional citadels in Bihar, including Begusarai, have crumbled and its pocket boroughs have been overrun by Laloo Prasad Yadav’s social-justice chariot or Nitish Kumar’s double-engine development juggernaut. The party had alliances with both the leaders in the past, but it has since lost its political and electoral moorings. In most parts of Begusarai, saffron flags with the lotus emblazoned now flutter atop houses of many dominant caste landlords, replacing the red ones with hammer and sickle.
Kanhaiya’s house and family in Bihat-Masnadpur village of Begusarai district.
Bihat-Masnadpur, though, still swears by its unflinching faith in communist ideology, as if biding time to return to its halcyon days, with the ascendancy of Kanhaiya as the most promising young leader from the Left in recent times.
Kanhaiya, however, appears to be in no hurry to claim his place in the sun as far as Bihar’s electoral politics is concerned. He claims he has no plans for the coming assembly polls and his recent yatra had nothing to do with it either. But Kanhaiya will know better that he has to get to the battlefield, if not to win, but just to rouse the moribund party. In keeping with the hoary traditions of Left parties, Kanhaiya is at best a party worker who cannot afford to grow bigger than the organisation regardless of his growing popularity or stature. Still, the oldest communist party in the state is increasingly being identified with him. At the Patna rally, crowds ran out of patience during Medha Patkar’s speech while waiting for Kanhaiya’s turn to speak. The possibility of a pre-poll alliance with the CPI largely depends on whether a prospective ally is comfortable with Kanhaiya’s meteoric rise or wary of his popularity. Laloo’s RJD, for one, has apparently chosen to keep a safe distance, simply because he might steal Tejashwi Prasad Yadav’s thunder.
The Patna rally was part of a campaign by a joint front of 100-odd big and small organisations of all hues. It all began with an anti-CAB rally in Purnia on December 16 where a large crowd turned up to listen to Kanhaiya and others. Soon a joint front was formed that decided to hold a mega rally in Patna after a statewide yatra. Yet political pundits wasted no time to presume that Kanhaiya had chosen to undertake the yatra to test the political waters in poll-bound Bihar.
Though Kanhaiya subsequently denied having any hidden election agenda behind his yatra, the success of his rallies appears to have landed him right in the middle of the poll arena where he is expected to lend support to the opposition camp in its bid to prevent CM Nitish Kumar from winning a fourth consecutive election in a row since 2005. Regardless of the RJD’s stand, Kanhaiya’s supporters believe he can still make a difference, with or without being part of any coalition.
The CPI has, for long, been on a hunt for a charismatic leader in its bid to revive its fortunes and many of its cadres have lately begun to think that Kanhaiya is the chosen one, the elusive hero they had all been waiting for. Much of their optimism apparently stems from Kanhaiya’s ‘Jan Gan Man Yatra’ during which he criss-crossed 4,000 km through 38 districts and addressed 62 rallies in a span of 29 days, including the ‘Save Constitution, Save Citizenship’ rally at Gandhi Maidan in Patna on February 27. The yatra, which commenced from West Champaran on January 30, proved more than eventful with his convoy being attacked at as many as eight places along the way, allegedly by right-wing supporters.
The jury is still out whether Kanhaiya’s mass contact mission will have any impact on the upcoming polls, but it has certainly underlined Kanhaiya’s resilience to bounce back into mainstream politics after his ignominious defeat in Begusarai. As the countdown to the assembly polls begins, the big question in Bihar is: will the Kanhaiya factor play out in any form?
Political commentator and economist Nawal Kishore Choudhary says Kanhaiya has definitely emerged as a hero for the forces opposed to Modi, but this heroism need not be translated into electoral gains for the Left. “He has come up as a hope, as someone who has also brought the Left back into the public imagination after a long while. He also comes at a time when there is a leadership vacuum in the Left.”
But the crowd he draws against Modi is not necessarily for the Left, says Choudhary. “Nitish Kumar, in spite of his declining image and anti-incumbency factor, still has the edge,” he says. “It is largely because of the absence of a credible opposition leader with organisational support. You cannot win an election simply with a leader. A leader plays a vital role, but he does it only when he is backed by the organisation.” That is why, Choudhary thinks, Kanhaiya may not be able to leave a mark in the coming polls even though he has a great future ahead.
“As an individual, his persona goes beyond the limited boundaries of Left politics, but in electoral terms, he is not a leader of the combined opposition. I don’t see any possibility of him being accepted as one either,” he adds.
The primary school where Kanhaiya studied.
It is an open secret that a wary RJD had fielded its candidate, Tanveer Hassan, from Begusarai to thwart the possibility of Kanhaiya’s direct contest with the BJP’s Giriraj Singh. The grapevine has it that RJD chief Laloo did not want any youth leader to emerge in the combined opposition camp as competition to his son Tejashwi. Kanhaiya drew huge crowds all through the campaign, during which he was labelled a traitor by his opponents, but he failed to get votes.
In the absence of any umbrella alliance of opposition parties, Kanhaiya’s popularity or his ability to pull crowds may well add up to nothing in the coming polls too, because the CPI alone does not seem to have the political structure or the resources to take on its bigger rivals in the fray. But Kanhaiya can certainly lend heft to any campaign against the NDA, as veteran Congress leader Shakeel Ahmad Khan, who shared the stage with Kanhaiya at his recent rallies, says.
“Whenever the process for a united opposition alliance begins, I would urge the parties concerned not to exclude the CPI because Kanhaiya’s presence is necessary for defeating the BJP,” Khan says. “I have met thousands of people during the yatra who implored us to forge an opposition unity so as to crush the communal agenda in the coming elections. If any party chooses to ignore the sentiments of the people, it will prove that they don’t have either honesty or strength to fight such forces.”
Khan, who, like Kanhaiya, was president of the JNU students’ union (1992-93), says that the Congress is in favour of a united opposition with Kanhaiya on board, but the RJD may have some reservations about it. “Kanhaiya’s presence in the opposition front will have an electrifying effect on the entire campaign against the NDA. The opposition alliance will also get a very good speaker who will raise people-centric issues during the campaign,” says the Congress legislator and AICC secretary.
Kanhaiya with Medha Patkar (first from left) and others at a Patna rally.
But will Tejashwi soften his stand and join hands for a united fight against Nitish Kumar? Ashish Ranjan, secretary of an Araria-based voluntary organisation, Jan Jagaran Shakti Sangathan, which had taken the initiative to organise a rally against CAA in Purnia, says Kanhaiya may be the most popular face in Bihar today, but given the way politics and caste equations work out in the state, a united opposition alliance is unlikely to come up under his leadership. “The RJD is still a big player in Bihar politics and Kanhaiya’s caste and other things will matter too,” he says. “Had the Left been strong enough with adequate organisational strength, it would have been possible, but that’s not the case.”
Kanhaiya, a Bhumihar, belongs to a dominant caste in a state dominated by backward caste leaders over the past 30 years. This factor alone has prompted many political observers to rule out the possibility of any umbrella organisation of multiple parties outside the Left ambit under his leadership. “I don’t see Kanhaiya as a formidable force in his own right in Bihar,” Ashish says. “Unless there is a big churning or a change of strategy or a concerted effort to bring together all the groups, it won’t happen.”
Politics in Bihar is a complicated game, which depends a lot on factors like caste equations. “At the organisational level, Kanhaiya has not done any consolidation process or started any such things in view of the coming elections. Far from it, he himself says that his campaign was not aimed at elections,” says Ashish, who nonetheless claims that he has not seen anybody else as popular as Kanhaiya among the Muslims in Bihar. “The turnout at the rallies, though, was also indicative of the strength of the issue of CAA-NPR-NRC, which was raised by Kanhaiya and others there.”
Nivedita Shakeel, a member of the CPI’s national council who accompanied Kanhaiya to a few rallies, says people have pinned their hope on him. “They do not look up to him merely as a CPI leader,” she says. “He is a popular figure. Just like a big film star. Though he wants to steer clear of any kind of heroism, thinking it will dilute the seriousness of political issues, young people are crazy about him. They wait for hours to meet him at night, long after the rallies are over.” According to her, Kanhaiya has captured the imagination of people primarily because of his unwavering stand against the policies of the Modi government. “Nobody has stood up to the Modi government the way he has. It has raised hopes among those who are opposed to the BJP’s ideology,” she says. “They think he can put up a fight against the Modi regime like no other leader.”
Not all, however, are so enamoured of Kanhaiya. RJD vice president Shivanand Tiwari says neither the Left nor Kanhaiya could be an alternative for voters in Bihar. “Kanhaiya may deliver good speeches and draw crowds to his rallies, but nothing more should be read into it,” he says. “For voters, the coming polls can only be between Nitish and Tejashwi. The Left will try to form a third front, but it will have limited space, with or without Kanhaiya.”
It is this inability of the opposition to stitch up an alliance of anti-NDA forces that political experts think might make it easier for Nitish to return to power. The JD-U, too, thinks there will be no opposition to their leader, united or otherwise, which would be strong enough to pose any threat to the NDA. The state’s information and public relations minister Neeraj Kumar claims Nitish will lead their alliance to the fourth consecutive victory in the polls. The JD-U leader insists that the contest this time will be between Nitish and others, and that no matter how many splinter groups spring up from the opposition camp, Nitish will be their common target.
“They contest separately due to their internal contradictions, but the people of Bihar have already made up their mind to vote us back to power,” says the minister. “They might have some issues with us at times, but they also have expectations from us.” He says none of the opposition leaders, including Kanhaiya, have spelt out how they look at the corruption charges against Laloo or Tejashwi, who wants to run their alliance on Laloo’s philosophy. “They have to tell the people of Bihar if their secular politics runs on corrupt practices under Laloowaad,” he adds.
The JD-U also makes little of the claims that it has lately had sharp differences with the BJP, especially after Nitish got a resolution against NPR-NRC passed in the state assembly without taking his alliance partner into confidence. Trashing the allegation, the minister says, “There is no difference or confusion in the alliance. In 2015, we had sought votes on the issues of our ‘saat nishchay’ (seven commitments) and zero tolerance on corruption, which were later endorsed by the BJP. We also do not have differences on any policy or leadership issue.”
With the BJP losing a string of states, including Delhi and Jharkhand, the JD-U appears to have inched closer to reasserting itself as the senior partner in the alliance, a position it had forfeited in the general elections last year after accepting an equal number of Lok Sabha seats with the BJP in Bihar. The BJP now seems to have no choice but to keep its faith in Nitish. The saffron party also says there is no difference with Nitish on any issue, including the assembly resolution against NPR-NRC. “As far as CAA is concerned, Nitish Kumar has already said that the issue is in the court,” BJP spokesperson Prem Ranjan Patel says. “The opposition is in disarray and shows total mistrust against each other. The RJD has already announced Tejashwi as its chief ministerial candidate, which has not gone down well with his allies like Jitan Ram Manjhi, Upendra Kushwaha and Mukesh Sahni. They even tried to project Sharad Yadav as their chief ministerial candidate, but the Congress did not agree.”
For the right wing, which considers Kanhaiya to be the very antithesis of its brand of nationalistic politics, the Left leader poses no threat. “He may be drawing crowds since Bihar still has a Left radical constituency, but that may not translate into seats in the legislature,” says R. Balashankar, political analyst and former editor of Organiser. “And if he ties up with other parties in an alliance of the Congress, RJD and the Left, it will give the BJP a handle to call the entire opposition the tukde-tukde gang.”
Back in Bihat-Masnadpur, villagers feel the recent attacks on Kanhaiya were a sign of the sheer desperation of the forces rattled by his soaring popularity graph. They also believe the sanction granted by the Delhi government to the sedition case against him was a ploy to bog him down in court cases so that he could not pursue politics in Bihar or elsewhere. Kanhaiya’s octogenarian uncle Rajendra Singh says many people had voted against Kanhaiya in the Lok Sabha elections because of the sedition case and now it has suddenly been revived during an election year in Bihar.
Kanhaiya’s mother Meena Devi, who is an anganwadi sevika in the village and earns a monthly honorarium of Rs 5,700, says she had panicked when sedition charges were pressed against her son. “I thought that he had brought kalank (stigma) to the family name,” she says. “It took me some time to realise that such things do happen in politics.”
Now, in the run-up to the polls, she might as well learn that popularity is not necessarily a virtue in the era of coalition politics.
By Giridhar Jha in Begusarai/Patna