We the Left, stressed professor Aditya Mukherjee in a recent television show on the raging debate over the arrest of JNU students’ union president Kanhaiya Kumar, slapped with sedition charges.
That a “we the Left” assertion has found its way into prime-time airwaves and newspaper front pages in ample measures after a long time has warmed the hearts of mainstream Left parties such as the CPI and CPI(M).
The JNU controversy, in more ways than one, was a god-sent opportunity for the professedly godless Left parties. It has brought them back into media space, once they disproportionately commanded, but lost out after a series of electoral debacles and their inability to reinvent themselves.
The lost romance between youths and Leftist ideals has become a worry for these parties for quite some time now. For instance, youths constitute only 6.5% of total membership of the largest left party CPI (M) in a country where 51.8% of the population is below 35 years.
And CPI, the oldest Indian political party after the Congress, whose student wing Kanhaiya Kumar represents, has just one Lok Sabha MP (from Kerala). Kumar hails from Begusarai, once the cradle of the CPI in Bihar, but the party is nowhere in the electoral reckoning in the state now.
The students’ agitation at JNU is something mainstream Left parties were desperately searching for. It is another matter that it is not exactly the kind of controversy they were looking for. But despite all the negative publicity, the controversy is helping mainstream Left parties in some ways. There are around 32 Left parties in the country, most of them in a race to prove who is the real Left.
The larger Left, which goes beyond the Left political parties, has reclaimed its space -- both intellectual and political -- to some extent in the aftermath of the protests at JNU. Left-leaning teachers, public figures, many of whom started moving away from the mainstream parties seem to have found their bearings now. The way the JNU protests gathered steam and the manner in which it polarised even professionals like lawyers and journalists kept the issue alive in mainstream media as well as social media.
Many Left minds who backed the JNU protests are more of Nehruvian socialists than communists. They have been keeping a low profile in recent times, failing to identify themselves with the ways of the Left parties.
That has begun to change. The suave general secretary of CPI (M) Sitaram Yechury, if he plays his cards well, can make political capital out of this.
But one shouldn’t class everyone who is supporting the JNU protest as genuine Leftists. Many of them have grudges against Prime Minister Narendra Modi for reasons other than ideology. Some of them feel Modi should have benefitted from their talents, but the Prime Minister didn’t care. They too are part of the chorus of the Left-minded and they ought to be seen through.
It may not be a refined statement to make but the fact remains that an upper caste Kumar (a Bhumihar from Bihar) being anti-national is not something that is easily digested by those with a north Indian sensibility. At the same time it is not easy for the Left to gain politically against the BJP in the national vs anti-national debate in northern parts of India. But such shrill protests can benefit them in the forthcoming elections in West Bengal and Kerala.
But it is a no-brainer that Noam Chomsky supporting an agitation has no more than applause value in electoral terms in north India. Militant trade unionism and seeing private capital as absolute evil are no ways to win electoral base in a country that has enough peasantry, poor, displaced and those left out of the liberalisation process.
Whether the ongoing protests on JNU campus, where leaders like Sitaram Yechury and Prakash Karat had cut their political teeth, can revive the Left has no immediate answers. For, the dialectics of electoral politics goes beyond reclaiming part of lost media space.
(Views expressed are personal. The writer tweets @jayanthjacob)