Kanhaiya Kumar

Kanhaiya Kumar: The Communist Party of India's star campaigner in Bihar

Print edition : November 20, 2020

Kanhaiya Kumar during an election campaign in Madhubani on October 19. Photo: PTI

Kanhaiya Kumar is drawing huge crowds for his public meetings.

Kanhaiya Kumar, the star campaigner for the Communist Party of India (CPI) in the Bihar Assembly election, is drawing huge crowds for his public meetings. But whether those crowds will translate into votes for the Mahagathbandhan remains a moot point. The Mahagathbandhan comprises the Congress, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Left parties.

The support base of the CPI, once a formidable force in Bihar, has eroded over time. Many political observers have pointed out that Kanhaiya Kumar’s appeal and reach stand diminished because of the CPI’s inability to harness it completely. Of the Left parties in Bihar, the CPI (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation, with three members in the Bihar Assembly and a considerable cadre base, is the most influential one in the Mahagathbandhan. It is contesting 19 seats as compared to the CPI’s six and the CPI (M)’s four.
Also read: How the left rose in Bihar's 2020 polls

Far-reaching appeal

Kanhaiya Kumar’s appeal goes far beyond the urban youth or villagers of the Hindi heartland. In 2016, when he was president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union, he was charged with sedition for alleged anti-national slogans. Thereafter, he shot to fame, with even his political opponents admiring his firebrand oratory. Among those that praised him were Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar.

Earlier this year, Forbes India named Kanhaiya Kumar, a native of Begusarai who holds a doctorate from JNU, as one of the 20 most powerful people to watch out for, next to heads of state and crown princes.

However, owing to a number of reasons, he has been playing a side role in the Bihar Assembly election campaign, primarily because this election is not about any individual. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who continues to enjoy acceptance in pockets of Bihar despite anger against Nitish Kumar’s governance, has not managed to configure the election around his persona. The Mahagathbandhan parties have come together on the single-point agenda of halting the march of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and driving the BJP out of the State. Given this understanding, the CPI cannot split hairs on the Chief Ministerial candidate, which must come from the largest party in the mix, namely the RJD, which is contesting 144 seats. In this situation, Kanhaiya Kumar has a limited role to play. Besides, as a national executive council member of the CPI, he has often stated that he is first and foremost a party worker and will even arrange chairs in a meeting if required to do so by his party.

In Bihar, he is often compared with Chief Ministerial candidate Tejashwi Yadav. It is believed that RJD leader Lalu Prasad perceived Kanhaiya Kumar to be a threat to the rise of his son Tejashwi, who continues to struggle with acceptance. In 2019, the RJD-Congress combine and the Left parties, despite their best intentions, did not come together against the BJP. The reason was said to be Kanhaiya Kumar. Ultimately, the RJD refused to withdraw its candidate, Tanveer Hassan, in Begusarai from where Kanhaiya Kumar was contesting, making it a triangular contest.
Also read: Tejashwi Yadav's interview during the 2020 assembly polls campaign

During his campaign, Kanhaiya Kumar regretted the fact that issues pertaining to the basic needs of the people, which were relevant 15 years ago, continued to dominate the political arena even today. “The ruling side is setting the agendas in the current State election and the opposition parties are merely reacting to it. The opposition should set their own alternative agendas,” he said. Ever since the 2019 Lok Sabha election, where he was defeated by the BJP’s Giriraj Singh by more than four lakh votes, Kanhaiya Kumar has maintained a low profile. Whether it was a calibrated move on his part or deliberate invisibilisation by the media has been a topic of discussion in political circles. His associates said he was working on the ground in Bihar, reviving and expanding the CPI’s cadre base. In February this year, the Kejriwal government in Delhi gave sanction to prosecute him in the sedition case, creating fears of an imminent arrest. His associates said he was advised to lie low for strategic reasons. When Umar Khalid and other students were arrested over the North East Delhi riots, Kanhaiya Kumar was criticised for not speaking up on their behalf sufficiently.

Whatever be the outcome of the Bihar election as well as the sedition case, both his supporters and detractors agree that Kanhaiya Kumar has a long way to go in politics and is definitely someone worth watching out for.
Also read: The plague of sedition, by A.G. Noorani

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