Can Kanhaiya Kumar help Left’s fortune in assembly elections in four states and a union territory? CPI(M) leader Sitaram Yechury said on Friday Kanhaiya, the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) student leader charged with sedition, will “naturally campaign” for Left parties because he is a leftist.
But on Saturday senior CPI leader D Raja was guarded in his response. “No decision has been taken. There are, of course, demands from people (party leaders in poll-bound states) that he should come. He is a students’ leader and he can go here and there. But the party hasn’t taken a call,” Raja told HT. Kanhaiya is associated with the CPI’s student wing, the All India Students Federation AISF.
The CPI may not be revealing its cards about Kanhaiya, but as the BJP has stoked up the national-versus-anti-national controversy, the JNU students’ union president is expected to be drawn into the poll arena as a campaigner. His emergence as a promising young leader whose speech on Thursday night got thousands of people glued to their TV sets and YouTube could not have come at a better time for the Left parties facing alienation from youth and students.
It is the first time in recent years that the Left has seen a student leader from its stable dominating the national discourse. The Left’s shrinking space on campuses has been a matter of intense organisational debate. Sixty-five percent of India’s population is below 35 and a majority of them do not identify themselves with the Left ideology. One reason for this has been is the diminishing political clout of Left parties, their failure to connect with issues concerning the youth and the rise of alternative forces.
A majority of this population bought Modi’s idea of India in 2014, went with Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi and trusted Nitish Kumar in Bihar. By taking on what it alleges is the growing interference of the RSS, the Left is trying to capture the anti-BJP space. In Kerala, it competes with the Congress-led United Democratic Front, but the rise of the BJP threatens to eat into its Hindu support base in the state. The Left is trying to compensate with gains among minorities who have traditionally supported the Congress.
The stardom Kanhaiya has been enjoying should give the comrades reason to rejoice. Kanhaiya’s speech on Thursday evening trended worldwide and his press conference on Friday overshadowed the Election Commission’s media briefing and the launch of an infrastructure development scheme attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Left has dominated the national discourse in the last two days, but will this translate into political gains, especially among the youth, is yet to be seen.
After a year of controversies and a poll debacle in Bihar, the BJP needs a good election result and it’s counting on Assam. In its effort to whip up nationalist sentiment, it is preparing to take on the opposition in Assam and West Bengal, two states where illegal immigration and border disputes have lent the nationalism debate a Hindutva overtone. It is in this context that the party is seeking to build on the JNU row. Whether it will work to the BJP’s advantage or backfire would also depend, to some extent, on Kanhaiya’s future moves and conduct.