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Kanhaiya May be The ‘Secular Symbol’ to Unite Splintered Opposition Against BJP-led NDA in Bihar

File photo of Kanhaiya Kumar (PTI)

File photo of Kanhaiya Kumar (PTI)

It is too soon to predict if Kanhaiya's Jan Gan Man Yatra would dent the poll prospects of the NDA or enhance the chances of the opposition Grand Alliance in the assembly elections later this year. But the response to his public meetings has forced the two major coalitions to sit up and take notice.

Patna: He has been receiving brickbats, quite literally, from opponents. Communist Party of India (CPI) leader Kanhaiya Kumar has faced nine attacks on his cavalcade in the past fortnight during the course of his Jan Gan Man Yatra in Bihar. The former Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union (JNUSU) president is on a statewide campaign to oppose the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), National Population Register (NPR) and National Register of Citizens (NRC).

But despite attacks, Kanhaiya has been unrelentingly moving ahead and holding rallies from one district to another. He began his journey from Chanpatia in West Champaran district on January 30 and is scheduled to conclude it on February 27 with a rally in the state capital.

The campaign had a rough start when he was detained by authorities as the West Champaran administration had withdrawn permission for a rally at the eleventh hour. However, he was freed on the intervention of Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar and allowed to move further.

Of the 17 rallies he has so far held, Kanhaiya has been heckled and attacked at nine places purportedly by Shiv Sena sympathisers. The CPI leader’s supporters have, however, alleged involvement of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) workers, saying the attacks indicate the saffron outfit, which is part of the NDA government in Bihar, has been rattled by the response to his meetings which have been successful in terms of turnout and people’s reaction.

At his rallies, Kanhaiya is supported and accompanied by opposition leaders like former Bihar chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi who heads the Hindustani Awam Morcha, senior Congress MLA Shakeel Ahmad Khan, who’s also a former JNUSU president, and a host of Left leaders.

CPI state head Satyanarayan Singh alleged that these attacks were being engineered by supporters of the Sangh Parivar and BJP. “If the government does not provide adequate security to Kanhaiya, we will be compelled to launch an agitation,” he said.

It is early to predict if Kanhaiya’s campaign would dent the poll prospects of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) or enhance the chances of the Grand Alliance in the Bihar assembly elections due later this year. But the response to his public meetings has definitely forced the two major coalitions in the state to sit up and take notice. At the same time, it has galvanised the hitherto dormant CPI cadres in Bihar.

The apprehensions of the ruling Janata Dal (United) and Bharatiya Janata Party are comprehensible as Kanhaiya has been directly attacking the BJP leadership and Prime Minister Narendra Modi over the CAA. But the most concerned appears to be the Rashtriya Janata Dal leadership, especially Tejashwi Yadav. It is understood that RJD chief Lalu Prasad does not want the emergence of any young leader on the political firmament of Bihar who could pose a challenge to his heir apparent.

It was due to the RJD’s opposition that the CPI, which had decided to field Kanhaiya from the Begusarai constituency, was not included in the Grand Alliance before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Shut out at the last minute despite months of seat-sharing negotiations, the CPI decided to field Kanhaiya as a joint Left candidate from the seat, which was once referred to as the ‘Leningrad of Bihar’ and remained a communist citadel till two decades ago.

The discord between Kanhaiya Kumar and Tejashwi Yadav started in October 2018 when the CPI had organised a rally at Patna’s Gandhi Maidan. The event was aimed at projecting and showcasing the two prospective young leaders for the soon-to-be formed Grand Alliance. But Tejashwi did not attend the rally and sent an emissary instead.

In the presence of the RJD leaders, the crowd chanted slogans like “Bihar ka mukhyamantri kaisa ho? Kanhaiya Kumar jaisa ho”, sending a strong message to the RJD and other opposition parties including the Congress. The slogans were enough to alert the RJD leadership towards the future potential of Kanhaiya Kumar, who has become a face of anti-BJP forces after he was jailed briefly in 2016 on charges of sedition.

Though the communist parties have wielded considerable influence in Bihar, they have a marginal presence now in only some pockets of the state. In the 1995 assembly election, the Left had swept the Begusarai region, winning five seats. Despite a steady decline in its influence, the CPI put up a decent fight in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Now, the Left parties need leaders like Kanhaiya to revive the cadres.

Going by his oratory skills and firebrand image, Kanhaiya has the potential to emerge as one of the top-ranking leaders of opposition parties in the state. However, caste politics seems to be the biggest hurdle in the way, as caste leaders have emerged as the new satraps. Tejashwi thinks he has become a national leader ever since he shared the dais with Congress MP Rahul Gandhi.

The RJD, which was once the champion of social justice, has been reduced to a party of Muslims and Yadavs while the Congress claims the support of upper castes and Muslims. Other constituents of the Grand Alliance are limited to their respective caste bases.

The Rashtriya Lok Samata Party headed by former union minister Upendra Kushwaha claims to be the sole representative of the Kushwaha caste while HAM’s Jitan Ram Manjhi commands limited influence among Musahars in the Magadh region. Mukesh Sahani of Vikassheel Insaan Party asserts he is the leader of the fishermen community.

The outfits doing politics of social justice lack any transformative agenda even though they claim to be a viable and secular platform. In fact, the secular platform is a rubric for caste leaders competing for a share in power and serving their political interests.

These caste-based outfits have already begun electoral bargaining for the upcoming assembly elections. Since they lack any big idea of binding them together, it will be difficult for them to fight the Hindutva agenda of the BJP-led NDA that overshadows petty caste feelings.

Against this backdrop, the ongoing Jan Gan Man Yatra by Kanhaiya has the potential to catapult him as the leader acceptable to other secular outfits.

(The author is a senior journalist. Views expressed are personal)