Someone with none of the conventional advantages – born without a spoon, let alone a silver one! – had been able to rise, through merit, scholarships and free institutions, to one of the nation’s premier universities, and to speak the way he did. It was difficult not to see his life story, his elective position, his confidence and dissent as the epitome of Indian democracy at its best.
The BJP government should be kicking itself, since its heavy-handed crackdown on the campus has created the Kanhaiya phenomenon. The foolish arrest, the slapping of preposterous sedition charges, the even more absurd (and easily discredited) attempt to disgrace Kanhaiya and his friends through the circulation of doctored videotapes of their demonstration – all have made a martyr out of Kanhaiya Kumar. They have also given him the platform, and the national media attention, to deliver the stinging critique of the government that has catapulted him to political stardom.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has suddenly acquired a major problem. His carefully cultivated political persona is not designed to face off against somebody like Kanhaiya. The boy totally disarms Mr Modi’s claim to “ordinariness”. (The PM’s narrative of having sold tea faces that of a student who could barely afford a cup of tea.) He has even co-opted the police, the government’s dreaded enforcers, by pointing out that constables have the same social background as him and share his views on issues, rather than those of the government.
And then there’s Kanhaiya himself, the darling son of every Indian mother (especially after his shave, which has restored youthful innocence to his face). His oratory, the way he switches registers and vocabularies so nimbly, his lack of rancour or self-pity, his cheekiness, his courage, his eloquence – he matches, arguably even defeats, Mr Modi. The BJP suddenly realizes it is ruling an India which requires the devotees of Krishna Kanhaiya to make room for Kanhaiya Kumar.
Kanhaiya Kumar has already, at the age of 28, become the political phenomenon the Communist movement has sorely lacked. His eloquence could single-handedly revive the moribund Communist Party of India (CPI). It seems he has already been conscripted into campaigning for the party in the forthcoming State Assembly elections in West Bengal and Kerala, two states where the CPI still has a tenuous presence and candidates to field.
He is the Sitaram Yechury of his generation – the brave student leader, also from JNU, of the 1970s, who stunned the nation by his courageous defiance of the Government, spoke Truth to Power, and went on to rise to the top of his party. If Kanhaiya weren’t just 28, he might even have been catapulted onto the national stage already with a Rajya Sabha seat from Kerala, where the CPI is entitled to a seat this year – but you have to be at least 30 to be elected to the Upper House, so Kanhaiya will have to wait.
The irony is that for all this, Kanhaiya has placed his undeniable idealism and sincerity at the service of a discredited ideology that has been repudiated everywhere in the world except in a handful of pockets in our country. He speaks feelingly of democracy and freedom but belongs to a party that believes in dictatorship. He upholds a constitution his ideology deems bourgeois, and demands rights that would be denied to all Indians by the practitioners of the Gulag and Tiananmen Square. He rejects the power of the state but does so on behalf of a movement that has used violence, brutality and even murder to advance its cause in Kerala and elsewhere.
Kanhaiya represents a voice of hope and aspiration – but he toils in the service of a party that opposed the introduction of computers into India (and smashed the first ones to be installed in government offices), denounced the entry of mobile phones as a toy for the rich (whereas nothing has empowered the Indian underclass more than the mobile phone), and consistently obstructs every progressive reform that would pull the poor out of poverty. His party, moored in a 19th century ideology, is manifestly unsuited to 21st century India.
What Kanhaiya Kumar stands for to most Indians transcends the party he has pledged his allegiance to. One can only hope that he is not reduced to a CPI apparatchik, a slave to an ideology and a political party that deserves to be rejected at the polls.
Kanhaiya legitimizes the dissent of ordinary Indians against the trends being promoted by the BJP government. One can only pray that one day he will rise above the platform he has inherited from two generations of CPI leaders in his family, and truly speak for the millions of Indian democrats he has now inspired.