What is common between the Congress and the Left? Pose this to a common man today and the answer may be Kanhaiya Kumar or Rohith Vemula.
The JNU students’ union president may be affiliated to the CPI’s students’ wing, the AISF, but Congressmen are gushing over him. The same goes for late Vemula of Hyderabad University who was not known to have any political affiliation.
They have become the Congress’ poster boys in the forthcoming assembly elections in five states.
In poll-bound West Bengal, both the Left and the Congress -- which have entered into a tacit understanding on certain seats -- are working out plans to use Kumar and Vemula in their campaign.
“The suspension of Vemula and the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar (on sedition charges) are about depriving people of their fundamental rights and we can’t seat idle. From rural to urban areas, we will carry out extensive campaigns to take on the BJP,” says Congress leader Pradip Bhattacharya.
CPI(M) leader Shyamal Chakraborty, too, said the party will organise movements across the state over the issues “to expose the dark side of the BJP”.
In Assam, Kumar and Vemula feature prominently in the Congress’ poster campaigns asking Prime Minister Narendra Modi when his ‘achhe din’ (good days) will come.
Congressmen argue that Kanhaiya symbolises the struggling, underprivileged youth “facing intolerance at every step” while Rohith represents the oppressed Dalits.
In Kerala, which goes to the polls on May 16, the Congress-led coalition is pitted against the Left parties. And how they try to leverage the two poster boys could well make the difference.
Kanhaiya and Rohith are already icons on campuses, their photos dominating debates and T-shirts.
And the Left parties are trying to woo the student community though the CPI is worried over big brother CPI-M walking away with the honours by appropriating Kanhaiya and Vemula. Kanhaiya belongs to the AISF, the CPI’s student outfit.
Left parties were in for a big shock when Vemula’s brother and mother attended a rally of Muslim League two months back. CPI(M) sent feelers seeking their help in its fight against Sangh Parivar outfits.
For the first time, the BJP is posing a threat to key players.
The Congress’ attempt to appropriate Kumar and Vemula exposes major fault lines within the grand old party. It was Rahul Gandhi who had, in 2008, set out to change the “system” and bring youth into “political mainstream” by introducing internal elections in the Indian Youth Congress. He wanted to end nomination culture in both the Youth Congress and the NSUI, the party’s students’ wing.
About eight years hence, it’s ironic that the Congress vice-president is seen competing with Left leaders in extolling Kumar and the sacrifices of Vemula. It says a lot about his experiments in the youth Congress and the NSUI.
But, probably, the Congress is not left with any other options. The 2014 Lok Sabha elections showed an en masse shift of the youth towards Modi and the BJP, dashing the hopes of the Congress, which had projected Rahul as a leader of the youth.
According to the opposition’s calculations, the BJP’s attempt to use the JNU episode to whip up nationalistic fervour has got some response from its “loyal constituencies” and students and youth belonging to the upper castes, but has had little resonance in other sections of the society.
Drumming up support for Kanhaiya Kumar and projecting Vemula as a victim of the NDA government is part of a larger strategy to wean the youth away from the BJP.
On May 19, when the assembly election results are declared, the country will know who got it right.
(with inputs from Avijit Ghosal in Kolkata)