The Ganga that once flowed by Sadakat Ashram, the Congress party headquarters in Patna, has receded, much like the party’s voters. Over the last three decades, the party office has been mostly deserted while the action has shifted to Bir Chand Patel Path, which houses the offices of the BJP, JD(U) and RJD. But now, for the first time in years, Sadakat Ashram is in the spotlight, awaiting the arrival of its newest entrant, Kanhaiya Kumar.
Speaking to the media on September 29, the day he joined the Congress in Delhi, the former president of the JNU Students’ Union — whose arrest in the sedition case of February 2016 and whose azadi slogans coursed through campuses across the country — said, “I have chosen the country’s oldest and most democratic (party). Many young people feel that if the Congress is not there, there won’t be a country,” said Kanhaiya.
It’s a definite shift for someone steeped in Left politics, whose politics has revolved around attacking the BJP and the Congress. During the 2015 JNU student union presidential debate, he had paraphrased a famous couplet to say, “Barbaad Hindustan karne ko ek hi Congress kafi tha… Har rajya main BJP baitha hai, barbaad e gulistan kya hoga (One Congress was enough to destroy the country; if the BJP is in every state, what will be left of this country)?”
For the boy from Begusarai, the Bihar town that’s often called “Mini Moscow” or “Bihar’s Leningrad” for the hold the Communist Party of India (CPI) once had over the region, activism started early. While he was introduced to student politics in school, it was college in Patna where he took the plunge into cultural and political activism.
Kanhaiya studied in R K C High School in Barauni, Begusarai, before joining the College of Commerce, Arts & Science in Patna in 2004 for his graduation. “I performed many plays for IPTA (India People’s Theatre Association) because of which I began reading a lot and got acquainted with Marxism. Once I began taking part in socio-political activities, I met activists of the AISF (All India Students Federation, the CPI’s youth wing), though I had become a member of the organisation by 2002, while still in school,” Kanhaiya had told The Indian Express in 2015, shortly after being elected JNUSU president.
After his graduation from Nalanda Open University, Kanhaiya moved to Delhi and subsequently joined JNU for his MPhil in 2011 at the Centre for African Studies. In 2019, he completed his PhD with his thesis on ‘The Process of De-colonisation and Social Transformation in South Africa, 1994-2015’.
It’s probably a measure of how far politics has travelled since the rise of the BJP that Kanhaiya, a leader of the CPI, saw in the Congress a natural career progression for himself. It is particularly ironic considering Bihar, which saw protracted battles between the CPI and Congress, from the mid-1960s till the late 1990s, now sees both parties as natural allies of each other.
Many of Kanhaiya’s contemporaries in JNU and those close to him at the Brahmaputra hostel, where he stayed, are, however, understanding of his choice of the Congress.
“The support that our movement received extended far beyond the campus or specific student organisations, and we became articulators of a broader progressive agenda. As long as he stands for that progressive vision, I wish him all the best,” says former JNUSU vice-president Shehla Rashid Shora, who was in the JNU union with Kanhaiya.
A hostel mate and friend of Kanhaiya’s says, “Kanhaiya is ambitious, and a person of his calibre should be ambitious. Over the last 4-5 years, especially after he left campus and began seeing ground realities, there was some frustration building up in him against the structure of the party (CPI) and its rigidity. He was unable to make changes in society like he wished.”
One of Kanhaiya’s closest friends and hostel mates, Anshul Trivedi, was among those who joined the Congress with him on September 28. Explaining his decision, Trivedi says, “In around 200 seats, only the Congress is in opposition to the BJP. Without strengthening the Congress, this anti-people regime can never be toppled.” Trivedi has been a member of Left organisations on campus, first the Students’ Federation of India (SFI) and then the Democratic Students’ Federation.
Many, in fact, point out that Kanhaiya and the Congress make for a natural fit.
For Kanhaiya, the Congress was, by elimination, the only option left — the BJP is his principal opponent, and the two socialist parties, JD(U) and RJD, wouldn’t project an upper-caste leader. With the CPI almost non-existent, Kanhaiya, a central committee member, couldn’t have progressed much more.
A CPI leader said: “Kanhaiya is a very ambitious leader. He felt marginalised when the Grand Alliance, of which all three Left parties, CPI (M), CPI (ML) and CPI, were constituents, did not use his services enough for the 2020 Bihar Assembly polls.”
So while Kanhaiya did not have a strong party, the Bihar Congress did not have a strong leader. The party, which was last in power in the state in 1990, has been without a leader who can lift it from three decades of political inertia.
This is where Kanhaiya comes in. He is seen as someone who can stare down an opponent. At the height of the opposition to the Centre’s CAA and NRC, it was neither the Congress nor socialist parties, but Kanhaiya, who took on the BJP. He launched a series of rallies in the Seemanchal region (Araria, Purnia, Katihar and Kishanganj), drawing huge crowds — his Purnia rally attracted around one lakh people.
Even if briefly, Kanhaiya’s rallies pushed the BJP on the backfoot. The rallies forced the party — which thought Kanhaiya was done and dusted after his Begusarai Lok Sabha (2019) seat loss to the BJP’s Giriraj Singh — to hold pro-CAA rallies.
Despite the fact that he could work the crowds in a manner that few could, most political parties, except the CPI cadre, stayed away. The only Congressman who shared the dais with Kanhaiya during those rallies was Shakil Ahmed Khan, a former JNU student.
A Congress leader had then asked: “Who else is Kanhaiya bringing to the table apart from some Dalits and Muslims?”
Now, as he begins a new innings, Kanhaiya realises his biggest strength — his aggressive counter to the BJP’s nationalitic and Hindutva politics — could also be his biggest undoing, especially in the Congress, a party still floundering and divided in its approach on how to take on Modi.
Those close to him say Kanhaiya knows this only too well — that a rigidly “Left” image could be a liability.
His friend and poet Sudhanshu Firdous recalls a meeting of civil society after Kanhaiya’s 2019 Begusarai seat loss. “The atmosphere was tense. Suddenly, chants of lal salaam erupted and Kanhaiya wondered if they cannot have a normal conversation without using lal salam too much,” he says.
Those within the Congress who are critical of his induction wonder how someone who couldn’t win his own seat enthuse the party.
Lalan Kumar, former Bihar youth Congress president and AICC member, says:”Kanhaiya is welcome, but what about several young Congress leaders who have been waiting in the wings for long? Kanhaiya has not won any election either. As Congress leader, will he continue to attract crowds the way he did as a CPI leader?”
They also point to his inconsistency as a drawback. Kanhaiya is known to emerge for brief bursts of activity before withdrawing into a shell — before the 2019 polls and later, after his anti-CAA rally, he had gone all quiet. His silence over the arrest of his JNU ally Umar Khalid in the Delhi riots case had also come in for criticism.
“Where was he when the entire Opposition was taking a stand on caste census? He remained out of Bihar for most of the time after the 2019 polls,” says a senior Congress leader.
Firdous dismisses the impression of Kanhaiya being stand-offish or unreliable. “There is no protocol for meeting Kanhaiya. But he does keep his distance from people at times because of security reasons. During his 2020 rallies, we spent a night at Darbhanga, where we all slept on dirty carpets and suffered mosquito bites all night. But Kanhaiya did not complain and held the next day’s rally with as much enthusiasm.”
It’s this son-of-the-soil hardiness that is being counted as Kanhaiya’s biggest draw, for the Congress that has steadily lost its grassroots connect.
Kanhaiya has often told The Indian Express of his hardscrabble early life in Begusarai — the son of Jaishanker Singh, a sustenance farmer and small-time CPI worker, and mother Meena Devi, an anganwadi worker — that has flashes of a child who had a way with words and oratory.
He has spoken of how he opted to read books so that he could escape the physical work the other boys his age did, how he won an Oxford Learner’s Dictionary for speaking on Mother Teresa at a school competition, and how he earned some money by volunteering as a polio worker.
Now that Kanhaiya has joined the Congress, his immediate challenge would be to deal with party veterans.
Bihar Congress working president Kaukab Quadri, however, said, “Since Kanhaiya has been directly inducted into the party by the high command, he will not face much challenge from within. Kanhaiya is a great orator and a star campaigner in the true sense. After a long while, we will see people coming to Congress rallies.”
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