Kanhaiya Kumar – a man few outside Jawaharlal Nehru University or the Communist Party of India (CPI) knew till three weeks ago – is the new rage. He is on every television channel and on the front page of the papers; his speech on Thursday night is being translated into different languages; he is being hailed on social media as the new leader.
Kanhaiya himself though has been cautious and told HT that calling recent events a turning point may be premature. However, he was not hesitant in declaring his aim and the goal of the movement – the end of Modi sarkar.
So should all this worry the Prime Minister and the BJP?
It is important to have some perspective here. In strict party terms, Kanhaiya is a member of the All India Students Federation, a student body linked to the CPI, which is at its weakest at the moment. It is a junior partner of the CPI Marxist (CPM) in the left front – its vote share in the country is 0.79%; it won one out of the 67 seats contested in 2014 and deposited its forfeit in 57 of those seats; its most recognisable national public face is D Raja, who depends on the AIADMK’s largesse for his Rajya Sabha seat and has no substantial mass base.
It is also important to remember that JNU is not the nation. It is a university with a remarkable political culture, but this political culture – while engaged with the outside world – has rarely had a direct impact on the events outside. It is a university which has produced many who dominate the country’s politics, bureaucracy and the media; its location in Delhi means that events get more media attention than say a similar event in a university in Bihar would get. But to think the mood in JNU, Kanhaiya’s proven leadership in the campus, and the azaadi cry is enough to change national dynamics, in itself, would be a mistake. What happens in JNU does not alter the electoral dynamics of the assembly or Lok Sabha constituency where it is located, let alone the state and the nation.
So in concrete electoral terms, and in terms of the spatial extent of what is happening, Modi need not worry.
But politics is not just about electoral calculations. It is not just about the organisational strength of respective parties.
It is about shaping the narrative. It is about telling a convincing story. It is about crafting a message that strikes a chord. It builds alliances outside the framework of the parliament. It unites people in resistance to what is seen as a challenge. It creates a sense of ownership of a particular cause, a particular movement, among a diverse set of people.
Remember the Anna Hazare movement – it had no party base at all. But it achieved shattering the UPA’s credibility, in telling a story of a citizen pitted against a corrupt regime and system. It brought together social movements, and that eventually had electoral consequences.
And that is where Modi has reason to be worried about Kanhaiya.
What the young leader achieved with his late night speech on Thursday was remarkable. He spoke in a language that was understood across the Hindi heartland. This was not an anglicised, English speaking central Delhi elite product – the kind BJP scorns – speaking. It was a man who has seen a degree of deprivation, who now belongs to the neo middle class – the kind BJP seeks to appeal to – breaking out of the stranglehold of his deprivation, and rising up through hard work in a university. This is a ‘product’ who many young Indians can relate to.
Kanhaiya was also not a classic left speaker – again the kind BJP scorns and can easily dismiss. He spoke a language that was not steeped in Marxist jargon, was careful to embrace the nationalism and not allow BJP to appropriate it, avoided the secularism-communalism binary, and was emphatic in its commitment to constitutionalism yet remained one of a dissenter. And what was the dissent in service of? For the solider, the farmer, and the student. And while articulating his politics in class, Kanhaiya did not forget identity, for he spoke of Ambedkar and Rohith Vemula, the deceased Dalit scholar of University of Hyderabad.
Riddled with wit and sarcasm, in a manner where Modi was reduced to a subject of merciless mockery, Kanhaiya is telling a new story – that this government is out to destroy freedoms, that it is anti-poor, anti-student, anti-Dalit and anti-minorities, that Modiji has failed to deliver his promises; and it is time to come together to battle it, it is time to fight for azaadi, in India.
It is this story which Modi should be worried about, for this is the story the opposition is, in its own ways, converging around; the ‘suit boot ki sarkar’ jibe, the narrative in the Bihar elections, and Mayawati’s recent parliamentary offensive have this common thread.
It is a story Kanhaiya articulated to a very wide audience – in a language that young people in north, central and west India understand clearly. If the story gains traction, the Modi sarkar’s credibility will diminish more rapidly than it expects. And once it loses its credibility, its performance legitimacy will dip, the opposition’s morale will soar, getting legislations through will become even more difficult, and delivering on promises that much harder. Electoral consequences will follow. For any government, the big danger is when it loses the narrative. The BJP has arrived at this juncture in two years.