It looks like a new icon is born in the person of the young comrade, Kanhaiya Kumar. While he hogs the limelight, Richa Singh, elected student leader from Allahabad University, might well be another candidate to capture the imagination of the youth. These persons (as also the developments at Hyderabad University) are associated with the simmering unrest on Indian campuses. So one way to understand the rise of Kanhaiya would be to situate it in the mismanagement of and political activism on campuses. But that is a rather narrow view of the development. The vehemence with which every BJP leader is coming out against Kanhaiya and other student activists, besides the pontification by none less than the RSS chief, confirms the arrival of something more than campus unrest. So what does the rise of Kanhaiya signify?
Kanhaiya’s leadership qualities need not be underestimated. A person rises politically only when he has grit, grasp and the gift of the gab. But leaders emerge not merely because of personal qualities; circumstance, too, shapes leadership. In that sense, Kanhaiya could be seen as the result of the BJP’s newfound ideological aggression and political arrogance. The handling by the police and government converted the matter into a high-profile issue. The media frenzy to search for an icon also contributed to Kanhaiya’s image. But these, at best, are only immediate and incidental factors.
The phenomenon of Kanhaiya may be more comprehensible in the larger socio-political context. In the first place, the BJP has unleashed a moral-ideological offensive that might win it many votes but also represents anti-intellectualism, or incompatibility with the idea of democracy, or both. The measured articulation in Rohith Vemula’s last letter or Kanhaiya’s passionate language are a response to this growing concern about the future of ideas and ideologies. Even those not necessarily in sympathy with “left” ideologies would be wondering about the closures that the current regime seems to be imposing in the realm of ideas.
But at a deeper level, the present moment also represents a deadly combination of heightened expectations, impatience and simmering disappointment. In 2014, Narendra Modi was successful in cashing in on the disappointments of an aspirational population but, in the process, he and his party generated huge expectations and impatience bordering on contempt for India’s democratic achievements. Two years down the line, that impatience is producing new anxieties and disappointments, and leading to a search for icons.
Sections of the media have questioned or ridiculed Kanhaiya’s somewhat-doctrinaire rhetoric based in his party’s ideological moorings. His critics forget that the current state of public discourse makes more room for passion than public reason; it contains more appeal for the rhetorical than the theoretical. One does not have to agree with Kanhaiya’s solutions in order to appreciate that he is appealing to the public reason shaped by Modi’s 3D oratory and Arvind Kejriwal’s personalised idea of the moral.
At the moment, he is confined by media publicity that mainly reaches only cities. In that sense, Kanhaiya’s rise may have a self-limiting character. But it would be a mistake to dismiss it for this reason. The increasingly diverse student population of today is not only from the urban elite classes. These students have familial and social linkages with cities and towns beyond the metros and many have more rural backgrounds. As such, they represent a general sense of defeat and disappointment emerging both from their current urban locale and their more rural roots. They realise that they do not belong to the city and yet can’t relate to the rural either. This produces resentment. Kanhaiya’s rhetoric resonates this.
The existing parties and leadership are simply incapable of grasping, leave alone channelling, these concerns. In this sense, the rise of Kanhaiya is similar to that of Kejriwal. Five years ago, the theatre was Delhi, the instrument was the media, the audience was a disillusioned public. Kejriwal seized the energy generated by that moment and even today, continues to be popular.
But there are sharp differences between the two. In purely ideological terms, one does not know for sure where Kejriwal belongs. Besides, his anti-corruption agenda could easily be subsumed by Modi and the BJP. So, the BJP was the indirect beneficiary of the Kejriwal phenomenon. In contrast, the popularity of Kanhaiya is unlikely to benefit the BJP for two reasons: One, his standpoint is markedly distinct from that of the BJP. More importantly, in ridiculing the current moment as “manufactured dissent”, the present dispensation has shown unwillingness to recognise the authenticity of disappointment and the legitimacy of democratic dissent. In this respect, the response is similar to the UPA’s response to the agitation by Anna Hazare.
It is not pertinent here whether Kanhaiya will be another Kejriwal. But the disappointments he represents need to be understood as illustrating the present moment. That is why the BJP is so vociferous in making the charge of anti-nationalism stick. Only by positing the debate in the frame of nationalism can the BJP hope to neutralise the energy that Kanhaiya’s rise is likely to generate. Once the debate is restricted to “freedom of speech” and “sedition”, it becomes an intellectual debate appealing only to urban sensibilities. Realising this, Kanhaiya has shown a remarkable capacity to readjust and shift the terms of the debate. But his task is not easy. For almost four decades, India’s national consciousness has been based on the “other” — both within and without. By the mid-1980s, crude politics of jingoism had replaced nationalism inherited from the freedom struggle. This situation has the potential to confine Kanhaiya’s appeal to limited pockets.
But Kanhaiya’s rise and Kejriwal’s continued appeal, along with the high-voltage personality cult generated by Modi, suggest that there is a political and emotive space for popular leader-activists, a national craving (partly generated by the media) for idols. The rise of an idol-centred political discourse represents complex possibilities ingrained in India’s democratic politics. The craving for larger-than-life figures is fraught with shallowness and a propensity to populist appeals. It is not encouraging to see how icons are shaped by the media, how images rather than ideas capture imaginations, how primarily urban sensibilities hegemonise mobilisational spaces. At the same time, the rise of leaders and idols with a capacity to mobilise public opinion and potential to result into a churning assure that, in spite of the inevitable routinisation or “normalisation” of democracy, there are possibilities of nudging the system out from its complacence. A democracy that contains possibilities for mobilisation and dissent continues to hold promise for the people.
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