( First published in the Times of India website as https://rb.gy/uei9cb)
The news of Kanhaiya Kumar joining the Congress has surprised and shocked many of his admirers. Moving from a Communist party to a bourgeois party is seen as regression. Some view it as his attempt to ‘mainstream’ himself. The truth is that both are political parties which believe in parliamentary democracy.
The CPI does aspire for revolution, but the method has to be parliamentary democracy. For it, democracy is not a means to be discarded once it is strong enough, but an end too. The Congress can take credit for initiating the nation in the ways of parliamentary democracy. In their economic philosophies, they do differ, but since the CPI has to operate in the frame of Indian democracy it has to find a way to push the nation towards greater egalitarianism. It can be done only in alliance with the so-called bourgeois parties is essentially what communist parties of all hues have realised in the last 75 years, and have collaborated with many of them, including the Congress at some point in their history.
Moreover, the prospect of the takeover of India by a majoritarian ideology called Hindutva is the most serious threat Indian democracy is facing since independence is an understanding both the Congress and the CPI share. So, Kanhaiya is not making an ideological departure in the larger sense of the term when he moves from the CPI to the Congress.
An unlikely hero
The question, however, is what are the implications of this alliance between a young ‘leader’ and an old party drifting in political waters and striving hard to find its ideological anchor? Does the party get youthful by adopting Kanhaiya? Would he be able to bring the youth to the party? What does Kanhaiya signify?
To be fair to Kanhaiya, public life was imposed on him. He was unjustly arrested and attacked and a malicious label of anti-national was tagged with him while he was doing his PhD in JNU and heading its students’ union. He was until then an unknown figure nationally, familiar only to the students of the JNU and popular for his oratorical skill. The world watched in horror a daylight assault on him in a court in Delhi after his arrest. It was his iconic speech after his release from jail that catapulted him to stardom. He, with his humorous, non-ideological language and quick wit, became a darling of all who wanted a response to the acidic and poisonous rhetoric of the leaders of the ruling party. He soon became a regular at the circuit of lit fests and was in constant demand from all over India. He crisscrossed India facing real life threats.
Kanahaiya had not sought this fame. It came to him and he was declared a leader. He was and is a fantastic speaker but for a speaker to turn into a leader requires some work with the masses. If we look at his career since the fateful year of 2016, we do not find him engaging in any grassroot organisational work. Again, not his fault, as he being a member of a party, did not have the freedom to launch his own programme. But one must also say that he rested on his laurels too soon and did not invest himself in the society in a meaningful manner.
Kanhaiya’s return to his native place Bihar and Begusarai ignited some hope in his party. But the party itself had lost its appeal in its own masses and Kanhaiya had to deal with politics, which spoke in the language of caste and communalism. He tried to reshape himself as a mainstream politician, but the label of “anti-national” would not leave him. Falling to the temptation of the mainstream politics and attempting to endear himself to Hindus, he distanced himself from his Muslim comrade of the JNU days like Umar Khalid. He did not attend the presser after the arrest of Umar Khalid despite having given his consent and refusing to utter the ‘M word’. His attempt was pathetic and he lost much of his heft.
The road ahead
One can say safely and sadly that in the last five years Kanhaiya has failed to add to his stature and his politics has lost its poetry. Now Kanhaiya would be measured by the same scale used for the election-bound politicians, who do nothing except elections, who can offer no new imagination of politics and keep wringing their hands, expressing their inability to take moral stand on crucial matters as it would alienate their voters.
Kanhaiya has already shown his willingness to compromise and choose a tactical silence when speaking with clarity is needed. So, how is he different from the other ‘leaders’ of the Congress and would he be able to nudge Congress towards some ideological courage?
Would Kanhaiya be able to stand with the Adivasis in Bastar; would he be able to or even willing to visit Mathura to fight for the violated Muslims; would he visit Indore to speak for Tasleem Ali? There are questions and questions.
The Congress in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh remains an idea to be realised but the lethargy, lack of imagination and courage, and the inability to put in hard labour makes it difficult for it to attract new masses. A lack of coherence in its policies and actions make it impossible for people to decipher its politics and larger intent. The party would definitely provide Kanhaiya a much larger platform than his erstwhile party, but more than that what?
Kanhaiya has only rhetorical flourishes in his arsenal. One is yet to see him working on the ground with the masses, building a movement or doing some grass root work. The Congress badly needs organisers who are more than smart speakers. It needs people with ideas. Above all, people with a moral spine and political courage. After all, India is not only about elections. When Muslims and Christians are being persecuted, they need steady friends for them to retain their belief in the democracy of India.
The biggest challenge before the Congress party is to shift the political discourse towards secularism, to regain the ability to utter the word, and practice it. It has to start talking to all sections of society with a courage of conviction in its founding ideas. The pictures of Kanhaiya, Jignesh Mevani and Rahul Gandhi joining hands at the memorial of Bhagat Singh could have been inspiring, but the colour of their pagadis betrayed the sheer poverty of even their semiotic imagination. This is a colour imposed on Bhagat Singh by the RSS and the Congress has unwittingly fallen in the trap. If this is the beginning then one can imagine the journey…