ONE-AND-A-HALF years after his very public contest with Union minister of state Giriraj Singh on the Begusarai Lok Sabha seat, CPI leader Kanhaiya Kumar made a very quiet appearance in Patna on Monday.
Word is that he will start campaigning soon — the CPI is contesting the polls as part of the Mahagathbandhan. However, like much about Kanhaiya lately, there is no clarity on how many rallies, and for whom in the alliance.
Kanhaiya’s silence is particularly striking since he had stormed into national limelight as the firebrand former president of the JNU Students’ Union, defiant in the face of the government’s sedition charges. Early this year, Kanhaiya was part of rallies against the CAA across Bihar, drawing enthusiastic crowds.
Seeking to build a political career from home state Bihar, Kanhaiya appears to be toning down his polarising image, which leaves him not just open to attacks by the BJP but also makes allies uncomfortable. On Twitter, where he has a massive following, he has been accused of being silent on so-called anti-national issues and has been talking of jobs, Babri verdict, and attacking the Modi government’s policies.
In the web series The Lallantop aired earlier this month, he said he owned the charge of being the “sargana (leader)” of “tukde-tukde gang”, as alleged in the JNU case, but that what he was fighting against were people trying to break the nation. He also contested the anti-national charge.
Asked if he was deliberately keeping a low profile this time, Kanhaiya told The Indian Express, “I have always been low-profile.” He said he saw his role in this election as being part of an alliance to ensure that the “anti-BJP votes are not divided”. “The biggest challenge before us is that when Nitish is getting weakened, the BJP might directly capture power in Bihar,” he said.
One of Kanhaiya’s friends admitted that the new image is “part of a strategy”, to make him acceptable beyond his loyal fans who include activists, Muslims, Dalits and youths.
For the coming election, Kanhaiya’s oratorical skills could be used by the Grand Alliance in selective areas, especially with sizeable Muslim populations. Sources said several RJD candidates have made it clear that they do not want the CPI leader campaigning for them. Sources also said there would be none of the “azadi” slogans associated with him in Kanhaiya’s speeches.
Kanhaiya told The Indian Express the Opposition should be careful about not building its politics around responding to the BJP’s agenda. “They will raise a mandir issue, a masjid issue… The Opposition should have agitations, movements, political programmes. It should not be that you react and stay silent… So if there is a Hindu-Muslim (issue), as a political party you have to give a response. Give a response but consistently raise issues of farmers, unemployment, security of women, atrocities.”
At the same time, Kanhaiya was emphatic that the Bihar polls were not a referendum on the Modi government. “No, absolutely not. In the political discourse, the entire attack is on Nitish Kumar. The anger and discontent are against Nitish… Yes, if the BJP wins, they will project it as a victory of Modi to cover up the failure during the lockdown. (But) this poll is for Bihar and is centred on Bihar.”
Asked about RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav being the CM candidate of the Grand Alliance, Kanhaiya said it was natural as he was the leader of the largest party, adding, “The question of who will be the CM if we get a majority is not that important for us.” Kanhaiya also noted that the crowds Tejashwi is drawing are impressive. “The response is good. The youth are supporting him.”
Tejashwi has so far kept his distance from Kanhaiya, seeing in the CPI leader’s crowd-pulling abilities a challenger for the spot of next-generation leader of Bihar. In the 2019 elections, the RJD had refused to support the CPI’s ticket to Kanhaiya from Begusarai. Without the RJD’s backing, Kanhaiya had come a distant second — underlining that he needed a larger platform. Those close to Kanhaiya hint that he is open to joining other parties in the Opposition camp.
Asked about LJP chief Chirag Paswan, another contender for future Bihar leader, Kanhaiya said he saw nothing wrong in him choosing to go alone. “When we have a multi-party system, how can you call one party a vote-splitter of another?”
Rajan Jha, an assistant professor at Delhi University, said there is another reason Tejashwi might feel threatened by Kanhaiya. “Kanhaiya is poor but upper caste and Tejashwi is rich but from a backward caste. If Kanhaiya comes to the centre of Bihar politics, it may break the stalemate of Bihar politics.”
In April, Kanhaiya told this reporter he would not contest the 2020 Assembly polls. As for 2025, he deftly parried the question.
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