Is he a flash in the pan or a Flash Gordon fighting his version of Ming the Merciless? Many believe Kanhaiya Kumar could revive the sagging fortunes of the Left and the Centre-left that had shrunk in the 2014 polls. The outcome was at once the high-point of the Centre-right that, to a vast section, seems to have since gone a bit too far towards the Right.
But sceptics led by the Right and the Centre-right have lost no time in branding the JNUSU president the secularists’ ‘poster boy’ customised by the Press, whose hour of glory could be directly proportional to the flirtatious media’s short attention cycle.
Political predilections are dictating predictions about Kanhaiya’s future. He may well disappear from public consciousness like the faces of the Jasmine Revolution or the Arab Spring: Tunisia’s vegetable-seller Mohammed Bouazizi and Egypt’s Facebook girl Esraa Abdel Fattah, respectively.
They did unsettle the established orders they perceived as unfair and oppressive, but failed to uproot or substitute them with durable alternatives anywhere in North Africa or West Asia. Even the Indian Basant (spring) led by Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal had limited success. The hope it inspired was fleeting; its success symbolised by the Aam Aadmi Party is as marginal as it’s debatable.
The ground situations in India are vastly different from Tunisia, North Africa and Egypt, except that Kanhaiya’s socio-economic background could match Bouazizi’s.
Moreover, there’s no dictator ruling us unlike when people took to the streets against Hosni Mubarak or Tunisia’s Ben Ali — whose downfall was triggered by Bouazizi’s self-immolation on being insulted by a civic official for selling vegetables without a licence.
Kanhaiya’s story and the circumstances that have put him under the spotlight are faintly closer to the JP movement of the 1970s, which saw the socialist veteran becoming the rallying point against Indira Gandhi. The difference today is that the JNU mascot has leaders and parties rallying around him. He’s no longer a student leader. He’s a student perceived as a leader.
On bail in a case of sedition, Kanhaiya has clarified upon his release that his hero was Hyderabad University student leader Rohith Vemula — not Afzal Guru. The suicide of Vemula, a Dalit, had caused a national uproar that miniaturised the Tunisian sentiment over Bouazizi.
Kanhaiya must know that Egypt’s Fattah is insulted now on the very Cairo streets she ignited five years ago to bring down Mubarak. Bouazizi’s sacrifice has brought a semblance of democracy in Tunisia, but vocal sections have started missing ‘stability’ under Ben Ali. Public adulation has limited life — and is often followed by derision.
The JNU leader has attacked the RSS and the PM upon coming out of jail. But he isn’t seeking to bring down any regime. He claims his fight is for freedom, not from India, as imputed in the sedition case, but from the country’s repressive socio-economic order.
It’s hard to miss his talent, his knowledge of the Indian conditions. That he’s seeking to ideologically connect with Dalits was obvious from his poetic imagery of ‘shades of red over the blue horizon that’ll survive the dark clouds.’
This reminded me of my own question to Jyoti Basu many years ago: Was the BSP’s emergence as the party of the Dalits not proof of the Left’s failure to connect with the poor and the dispossessed whose cause it espoused?
One has to wait to find out whether Kanhaiya has an answer. It’ll be instructive to also see how the RSS-BJP, snapping at his heels with ‘nationalist’ guns booming, will counter his political idiom. Deriding it as a Commie’s rant wouldn’t help. For it has traction in vast swathes of India that bear no resemblance to what we see in urban islands of disposable wealth. And consumerist greed.