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6-min read

Kanhaiya Kumar: From Firebrand Student Leader in JNU To 'Son of Soil' in Bihar's Begusarai

Kanhaiya plans to reach out to the voter in person, not spend on social media, focus on ground issues in Begusarai, but battle the idea of Modi head on.

Aishwarya Kumar | News18.com@aishwaryak03

Updated:March 25, 2019, 5:21 PM IST
Kanhaiya Kumar: From Firebrand Student Leader in JNU To 'Son of Soil' in Bihar's Begusarai
File photo of Kanhaiya Kumar (PTI)

New Delhi: In February 2016, a young student leader from the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University was arrested on charges of sedition and criminal conspiracy as he was accused of speaking against the hanging of Afzal Guru, an allegation which he outrightly denied. A month later he was released. Three years on, however, the tag of being called an “anti-national” has stuck with Kanhaiya Kumar.

The student leader turned mainstream politician understands the label associated with his name even as he stands to contest as the Left candidate from Begusarai – referred often as the Leningrad of Bihar.

Born in 1987 in Begusarai, Kanhaiya is the “son of the soil”, a sentiment which he says will take him ahead in the upcoming elections. He has been in his home town since last July. “Out of the 257 panchayats here, I have already covered 215 panchayats,” Kanhaiya tells News18. The candidature, however, did not come easy to him.

The CPI, despite fighting a losing battle in the district, tried to convince the RJD-Congress alliance that it would win the Begusarai seat. CPI maintained that it had won the seat before and whenever they have not won, they have come in second. RJD, however, was not convinced. Kanhaiya says that while he has heard rumours about Tejashwi Yadav not being happy with Kanhaiya as the candidate, the latter believes otherwise.

“RJD does not want to let go off a seat where, vote calculation shows, CPI can win. And the other seats, RJD is uncertain whether CPI will win. I think that’s why the alliance fell apart,” says Kanhaiya, adding that he was not disappointed with the outcome.

“The information that I got is that except RJD, all allies said that the Begusarai seat should be given to CPI. Our party wants a united opposition and doesn’t want a split in the anti-BJP vote,” he added.

Kanhaiya is realistic about a few things: knows that CPI, despite being a national party, was not a big force to reckon with. But, he’s happy being with the party. The young leader also accepts the possibility of a split vote.

For him, the 2019 elections is “Modi v/s We the People.”

The BJP has fielded controversial leader Giriraj Singh from Begusarai with many thinking that the reason for fielding Singh is the fact that close to 35% of the electorate is from the Bhumihar caste. Kanhaiya too comes from the same caste and the last Begusarai MP, the late Bhola Singh, was also from the same caste. Experts have noted, this factor plays an important role in Begusarai.

However, Kanhaiya believes that Indian electoral politics is no longer about the candidate. “There is no middle ground. The media has also made it into a Presidential election. It’s either pro-Modi or anti-Modi. So, in Begusarai, whoever wants the BJP to lose will vote for me and whoever wants the BJP to win will vote for Giriraj Singh. There will be no triangular fight,” he said.

The young leader is certain that it is a direct fight between him and Giriraj Singh, despite there being a third candidate, RJD’s Tanveer Hassan.

Left with a little over 40 panchayats to cover, Kanhaiya says he is strong on the ground—booth level committees have been made, large gatherings have been addressed. But one of the biggest takeaways from the months he has spent in his home turf is the ‘Muslim issue” as his own people call it.

“Those who are unhappy with the government is one group of people. And then there are those who are happy with the government. But, their anger towards Muslims supersedes their anger towards the government. They are happy since they believe that Modi has come and fixed the “Muslim problem.” This is the sentiment and it’s shocking,” Kanhaiya said, adding that he was unsure how viable the narrative was when it came to actual politics but “the BJP was trying to play on it.”

That said, he is the “son of the soil.” Kanhaiya narrates how the people in Begusarai started a campaign—“Neta nahi Beta” (Not a Leader but a Son)—which has gathered steam over time. “Like I said, this elections is all about pro-Modi and anti-Modi. But that said, in Begusarai, it’s less political and more emotional. They relate to me,” he added.

Kanhaiya said in the upcoming elections Begusarai’s image at stake. “One of their own was jailed and on top was labelled as an anti-national. They think about how their district was shamed with this label and the arrest. This is a very strong sentiment here.”

Ever since the Left announced Kanhaiya as its candidate, #Kanhaiya4Begusarai has been one of the top trends on Twitter. Contemporaries like Jignesh Mewani have rallied behind him who have said that his candidature is more than a mere election affair. When asked about the social media frenzy surrounding his candidature, Kanhaiya says the medium does not play a huge role when it comes to his constituency.

The young leader believes most of the electorate comes from the rural areas where social media may not work as much. He does not intend to spend any money on social media.

“We are reaching out to maximum voters directly. That is our target. Whatever is happening on social media organically, it can go on,” he asserted.

Months of travel, reaching out to voters has also brought about the biggest lesson for Kanhaiya as he departs from campus politics and university politics. While he says the issues like caste, religion remain the same and the dynamics of both politics are also similar, “campus politics is based more on idealism and national politics is based on pragmatism.”

“At the university level, you deal with such issues on the basis of your ideals but in national politics, things that you feel are unnecessary, have to be dealt with based on pragmatism which may clash with your ideals. In university, you can argue about religion on rationale. Here, in mainstream politics, if you try to make a rational argument about politics, people will react, rather than understand,” he said.

His priorities when it comes to his constituency are however in place, he says. Education tops the list, followed by healthcare and transport. Asserting that Begusarai was the second after Patna in revenue generation in the state, Kanhaiya says that the district was still devoid of a very good university or a hospital equipped to handle critical illnesses.

“The Northeast corridor goes through Begusarai, making it critical area. The land here is very fertile. If developed well, there will be no migration. Agrarian small scale and middle scale industries can be developed and the rewards can be very high. Begusarai is not flood affected but the districts surrounding it are. That can be utilized to its advantage. The only problem is political parties have taken the common people for granted,” he said.

Ahead of the Lok Sabha Elections, Kanhaiya declares he is solely focusing on winning people’s trust through committed interaction. He says he has been the center of attention for the longest of time: talking on TV channels, giving interviews and a lot controversy.

"Now, I am solely focused on meeting people personally," he said.

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