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Kanhaiya Kumar’s red carpet entry

TV Jayan | Updated on April 12, 2019 Published on April 12, 2019

The communicator: Kanhaiya Kumar’s public meetings are jam-packed because he is an expert at reaching out to people   -  KAMAL NARANG

Once called the Leningrad of Bihar, Begusarai is the home base — and constituency — of former student leader Kanhaiya Kumar

If it’s red, it’s got to be Begusarai. A red Honda BR-V goes down a national highway that splits the Bihar district into two unequal parts. All around, there are men in red — one young man has even painted his body a bright shade of crimson. Red flags flutter, and volunteers in red kurtas run with the vehicle or ride along with it on motorcycles.

The Honda stops. A man in a blue kurta emerges out of its sunroof. It’s Kanhaiya Kumar, the best-known student leader — in recent years — of Jawaharlal Nehru University. With a bright red-and-blue gamchcha around his neck, he waves out to the crowd.

Campaigners mill around him. Not just the local youth, people from other parts of the country are rooting for him, too. JNU students and artistes from Bollywood — Javed Akhtar, Shabana Azmi, Swara Bhasker — are all there, as are activists Jignesh Mevani and Teesta Setalvad. The mother of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit student who killed himself, and of Najeeb, a student missing from JNU, are also backing him.

Begusarai looks like a slice of Kerala, or what was Bengal once. Actually, the Bihar town itself used to be a Left bastion. And Kumar, a son of Begusarai, hopes to replant the red flag there. The last time the CPI won this Lok Sabha seat was when Yogesh Sharma romped home in 1967, but the party’s candidates have always cornered a fair share of the vote.

Kumar looks exhausted, for he has been campaigning hard for the April 29 poll. But there is an air of confidence and determination about him. His public meetings are jam-packed, for if there is one thing that he knows, it is how to reach out to the people.

A JNU lecturer recalls that when Kumar was arrested from the university in February 2016 after a prolonged protest by students, he made some unlikely friends — the policemen who had him in their custody. “Lawyers told us he would chat with them, speaking the language that the constables spoke. Soon, the police were among his fans,” the academic says.

Begusarai was catapulted into prominence when the Left parties fielded the 32-year-old former students’ union leader from the North Bihar constituency as a CPI candidate. Kumar’s parents were CPI activists, and he himself was a leader of the All India Students’ Federation, affiliated to the CPI.

It’s not going to be a cakewalk, though. He is pitted against Bharatiya Janata Party leader Giriraj Singh, a minister in the Narendra Modi government, and Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Tanveer Hasan, a member of Bihar’s Legislative Council. The BJP’s Bhola Singh, who died last October, won the seat in 2014. Hasan came second and the CPI’s Rajendra Prasad, third with 1.93 lakh votes.

Kumar’s supporters are hopeful because Begusarai, once known as the ‘Leningrad of Bihar’, has a considerable Left presence. Shatrughan Prasad Singh, former CPI MP from erstwhile Balia, holds that the youth — cutting across religion and caste — are rallying behind Kumar.

“We are very confident that Kanhaiya will win from here. Not just us, we have been able to convince our relatives that they should vote for Kanhaiya this time,” says 21-year-old Tuhair Ahmed, a history student in a local college who took part in Kumar’s road show.

Kumar is also a Bhumihar — a landed caste that dominates the constituency. Bhumihars account for the biggest bloc with 4.5 lakh votes, followed by Muslims (2.5 lakh votes), Dalits (1 lakh votes) and Yadavs (80,000 votes).

The Bhumihars, however, have traditionally supported the BJP in this region. But Kumar says he hopes to smudge well-entrenched caste lines.

“All political calculations and caste equations will be disrupted in Begusarai this time. The results are going to surprise poll analysts when the votes are counted on May 23,” Kumar, who recently earned his PhD in African studies from JNU, tells BLink.

A good triangular contest may see him through, argues CPI’s Singh. “The RJD may not be supporting us, but a large number of its party workers have been telling us that they are angry with the party for not giving a seat to us as promised earlier. They said they would support us,” the ex-MP says.

Others in the Mahagathbandhan — Bihar’s grand alliance — are not happy about the RJD contesting against Kumar. Former chief minister and Dalit leader Jitan Ram Manjhi, a contestant from Gaya, recently said Kumar was a “rising star” whose voice needed to be heard in Parliament. He urged supporters of the Mahagathbandhan to support Kumar if they felt he could defeat the BJP. Many believe Manjhi’s remarks may spur the Dalit community into voting for Kumar.

Kumar, meanwhile, is weaving his oratorical magic — talking about his roots, threats to the Constitution and explaining that the freedom (azadi) he seeks is not from India, but from problems such as poverty and unemployment. With his trademark Azadi song, he is winning hearts in Begusarai.

Those who gather at his meetings — from the very young to the old — sing along with him. A group of young men cheers him on with a folksy song before a public rally. “Arre, Kanha ko jitayenge (we will make Kanha — Kanhaiya — win),” sings the main campaigner. “Theek hai (that’s right),” the crowd sings in response.

Published on April 12, 2019
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