The vacuum in opposition leadership over the last five years threw up some self-made youth leaders outside of the existing political parties. These included Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, Shehla Rashid, Jignesh Mevani, Hardik Patel and Chandrashekhar Azad. They seem to have faded away from national politics after the 2019 elections, if not much earlier. Where did these young leaders go wrong? Given that the vacuum in opposition leadership has only grown, why aren’t they making an impact?
Of all of them, the one who created the most impact, appeared to be the most promising was Kanhaiya Kumar. Given the high bar of expectations he set, he has also proven to be the most disappointing.
Kanhaiya Kumar’s brief achievement was stunning. Here was a Leftist student union leader at the Jawaharlal Nehru University jailed by a Right-wing government on accusations of being anti-national. The boyish Bihari comes out of jail and gives a memorable speech that turns the ‘anti-national’ charge on its head. If only the opposition had one such orator, Indian politics would have been very different today.
Kanhaiya rises to instant fame and becomes the toast of the Left-liberal space. He’s on every channel, every media conclave, every big event, debating with the BJP spokespersons and supporters, often shutting them up.
Having lost Begusarai, Kanhaiya has now disappeared, working at the grassroots. He’s said to be promoting the CPI in Bihar and Bengal. He’s given up on immediate electoral politics. He won’t leave an anachronistic party because it’s family, and he can’t lead it to revival either. What a waste.
The problem was not that Kanhaiya was too ambitious for his age, wanting to win a Lok Sabha seat against candidates of two established parties. The problem was that he wasn’t ambitious enough. He still isn’t.
After a man rises to national political fame, all he wants is a Lok Sabha seat? There are so many Lok Sabha MPs that most of them won’t even be recognised by people on the streets, sometimes even in their own constituencies.
Thinking at scale
Kanhaiya Kumar could have aimed for something much bigger after 2016. He could have started a national movement, taking the entire opposition space. He could have joined a mainstream party, even created his own party, or theoretically, even infused new life into the CPI. He could have done an Arvind Kejriwal. If not national politics, he could have aimed for Bihar politics, which is in pressing need of a leader to out-match Nitish Kumar. But what does the Azadi boy want? Just a Lok Sabha seat.
Instead of putting his new-found fame and his outstanding oratory skills to good political use, Kanhaiya allowed himself to become a toy in the hands of TV, Bollywood and socialite Leftists. Even now, he often goes to Mumbai to hang out with his celebrity friends. In the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the Rashtriya Janata Dal leaders found Kanhaiya arrogant, an RJD leader had told me.
Instant celebrityhood at a young age is difficult to handle. Most will struggle to keep their heads on their shoulders.
Instead of wasting his time with Bollywood and the CPI, it would be better for Kanhaiya Kumar to enter the Bigg Boss house. Alternatively, he can still use his fame and oratory to lead agitations and build a structured campaign around them. If he does so, he could succeed in changing the political discourse of the country. But to think this way, you need to be ambitious. Kanhaiya would think this way only if he dreamt of becoming the chief minister of Bihar, or the prime minister of India. Alas, all he wants is to be one of the 545 Lok Sabha MPs.
Begging the Congress
The lack of ambition, and therefore the inability to think at scale afflict the other young leaders too. Jignesh Mevani shot to national fame with the Una movement in Gujarat. He could have transformed himself into the face of the angry educated Dalit youth, avenging the death of Rohith Vemula.
In the 2017 Gujarat elections, a weak Congress wanted its campaign to stand on the shoulders of Hardik, Jignesh and Alpesh Thakor. So, it agreed to Jignesh’s blackmail, and vacated a Congress stronghold seat to let him win as an Independent. Emboldened by this, Jignesh wanted the Congress to gift him a Lok Sabha seat. He camped in Delhi for months to beg for one. But what would the Congress get by gifting a ticket to an independent activist who refuses to join the party?
The Congress could have been blackmailed again, if Jignesh mattered nationally, the way he did in Gujarat. Once again, he was unable to put up any agitational campaign and just glided from one event to another, and was frequently seen on Delhi-Ahmedabad flights.
Missing: a strategy
Similarly, Umar Khalid as a Leftist, who happens to be Muslim, could have become a voice of Muslims demanding constitutional rights, a secular Owaisi, so to speak. Or, he could have become a youth leader raising issues of the youth to assert that he is more than just his Muslim name. Either strategy would have needed a strategy in the first place. It would have needed planning, scale, movement, agitation, campaign, crowdfunding… and ambition.
Shehla Rashid must be the most unambiguous Kashmiri youth leader. Instead of burnishing her credentials as a leader of the people by getting jailed like other Kashmiri politicians, she has chosen to ‘quit’ electoral politics. Leaving Khan Market for Kashmir is an event she has to announce on Twitter.
Hardik Patel has joined the Congress and now that Patel caste politics has fizzled out, he doesn’t know what to do. If he could use his skills for agitational campaigning and become the voice of ‘rurban’ Gujarati youth, he could project himself as a CM face. But he’s now in Congress, so he’ll start campaigning only two weeks before the elections, in keeping with the Congress culture.
Chandrashekhar Azad of the Bhim Army gave in to the Congress culture without even joining the Congress. The Congress asked him to not spoil the party’s chances in Saharanpur in the Lok Sabha elections and he agreed. A Dalit youth leader imprisoned by a BJP government under the draconian National Security Act could have used political victimhood to create a mass support base for himself across Uttar Pradesh. Instead, Chandrashekar Azaad made himself irrelevant even on his home turf of Saharanpur.
Given that our mainstream opposition parties are showing no sign of life, the vacuum in opposition is likely to be get more pronounced in the next five years. There hasn’t been a better time for new leaders to emerge since the chaos of the early 1990s.
Hardik Patel is only 26, and the others are in their 30s. They can still reinvent themselves with ambition and scale.
Views are personal.