After joining the Congress on Tuesday, Kanhaiya Kumar said he switched over from the Communist Party of India (CPI) in a bid to ‘save’ the Congress party and the nation.
Kanhaiya Kumar said, “Not just me, but many think the nation can’t survive without CongressCongress party is like a big ship. If it’s saved, I believe many people’s aspirations, Mahatma Gandhi’s oneness, Bhagat Singh’s courage, and BR Ambedkar’s idea of equality will be protected, too. This is why I have joined it.”
But what is Kanhaiya Kumar likely to bring to the Congress party that would help ‘save’ the party? His argument conversely betrays his understanding that the Congress needs to be ‘saved’.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi receives a memento from Kanhaiya Kumar who joined the party (PTI)
Kanhaiya Kumar shot to fame after a 2016 incident on the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) premises, where he led a protest meeting against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Narendra Modi government. The event turned out to be controversial with allegations that anti-national slogans — including ‘Bharat tere tukde honge’ [India shall break into pieces] — were raised at the event.
This brought Kanhaiya Kumar to the limelight and TV studios, particularly after he was released on bail from jail in the sedition case that was lodged after the JNU incident. His TV appearances articulating his position while criticising the Modi government’s policy fast-tracked his elevation as a Lok Sabha election candidate on CPI ticket from Begusarai in Bihar. He lost the election to Union Minister Giriraj Singh.
The Congress hopes his media popularity and ability to articulate criticism of the Modi government’s policies may help the party counter the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in grassroots politics.
FACE IN PARLIAMENT
Kanhaiya Kumar’s switch to the Congress reflects his own ambition in politics. CPI leaders have, in media reports, described Kanhaiya Kumar’s decision to join the Congress an example of his “hastiness” to become a parliamentarian.
There is speculation that the Congress might send Kanhaiya Kumar to the Rajya Sabha to articulate party’s positions for the national audience. The Congress has been criticised for not countering the BJP with ‘sound’ arguments.
An increasingly left-leaning Rahul Gandhi, the Congress’s de facto boss, might find a ‘communist’ Kanhaiya Kumar fitting the role suitably in Parliament. Entry of Kanhaiya Kumar may also compensate the loss of young leaders such as Sushmita Dev, Jitin Prasada and Jyotiraditya Scindia in the Congress.
LACKING GRASSROOTS EXPERIENCE
Though Kanhaiya Kumar is a known face in political debates in TV studios, he is yet to prove himself as a leader of the masses. His candidature in the Lok Sabha election did not come on the back of grassroots politics or enough experience in handling elections for the CPI.
He became the JNU Students’ Union president as a member of the All India Students’ Association (AISA), the students’ wing of the CPI-Marxist-Leninist (CPI-ML). He joined the CPI ahead of the Lok Sabha election in 2019 after speculation about him joining either the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) or the Congress. The three parties were constituents of the Grand Alliance of the Opposition parties in Bihar.
Kanhaiya Kumar’s elevation came with no experience in parliamentary elections. This was evident during his electoral experiment. Though the Left Front has seen a decline in North India, the CPI has maintained sizeable vote-bank in Bihar. It is known in Bihar for leading a low-cost election campaign.
Kanhaiya Kumar resorted to crowd funding and voluntary donations for his election campaign and brought ‘celebrity’ speakers to his constituency. This is said to have alienated traditional CPI supporters. He lost the election by over 4 lakh votes.
Incidentally, the CPI won the Teghra assembly constituency in which Kanhaiya Kumar’s village falls in the Bihar state polls in 2020. This left Kanhaiya Kumar with an image of a non-struggler who grabbed attention without putting in enough hard work in politics.
COMMUNIST, JNUSU TO CONGRESS: NOT THE FIRST
Kanhaiya Kumar was the JNUSU president for 2015-16. His successor Mohit Pandey, also from AISA, heads the social media wing of the Uttar Pradesh Congress. Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is the general secretary in-charge of the UP Congress.
Another former JNUSU president, Sandeep Singh (2007-08), again from AISA is the political adviser to Priyanka Gandhi. At least one former JNUSU president is a Rajya Sabha MP for the Congress.
Syed Naseer Hussain was the JNUSU president for 1999-2000 as a Students’ Federation of India (SFI), affiliated to Kanhaiya Kumar’s former party CPI. Hussain is a Rajya Sabha MP from Karnataka. Kanhaiya Kumar is speculated to join Hussain in the upper house of Parliament.