The pan-India movement against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens has been described as leaderless by many. However, there are many faces on the ground and online who are grabbing India’s attention. Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad and former JNUSU president and Communist Party of India politician Kanhaiya Kumar are two such leaders in the limelight.
But there are key differences between the two leaders. And it is visible in the way the Indian state has responded to them.
Kanhaiya Kumar is not a threat
A recent Reuters report claimed that Kanhaiya Kumar has emerged as a “major irritant and political challenge to Modi” during the protests. Quoting an unnamed aide to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the report said: “Kumar’s appeal to young and first-time voters has worried Modi.”
There is no doubt that Kanhaiya Kumar is drawing the crowds. People are listening to him and forwarding snippets of his speeches on WhatsApp. Even Deepika Padukone was standing behind him when he was addressing students at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Kanhaiya Kumar is a good orator and his speeches resonate with the masses. But is he the leader who can challenge the demagogy of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah? Unlikely.
The problem with Kanhaiya Kumar is that he is not adding anyone new to the anti-Modi camp. He is just creating an echo chamber of anti-Modi forces, especially among the Muslims. Kanhaiya says things about Modi and the BJP that they want to listen to and that makes them happy. But that is hardly a political challenge to Modi. Muslims gathering in large numbers to clap for Kanhaiya will not worry Modi and Amit Shah. At best, Kanhaiya is able to tickle the funny bones of those who are Modi haters already. And that will not swing the social forces that have helped BJP catapult to this level of popularity.
Kanhaiya Kumar is no threat to ‘ghar ghar Modi’.
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An extensive exit poll by CSDS showed that ‘upper caste’ Hindus are the most aggressive supporters of the BJP. The party also gets support from the OBCs and the SCs. The party will be worried when any of these social forces – ‘upper castes’, OBC, SCs – starts deserting it.
Kanhaiya Kumar is an ‘upper caste’ Hindu, but his admirers are mostly Muslims and elite liberals. That’s why he is a leader who can’t breach the social coalition of the BJP supporters. That is why he is allowed to roam around India and address public meetings.
Chandrashekhar Azad more dangerous
The Narendra Modi government is reacting exactly opposite in the case of Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad.
Kanhaiya Kumar’s many speeches haven’t been able to create the impact that one image of Chandrashekhar Azad has – him holding up a copy of the Constitution of India in a crowded Jama Masjid.
Chandrashekhar Azad escaped detention and showed up at the anti-CAA protests called by the Bhim Army, only to turn himself in to the police a few hours later.
Delhi Police asked for his custody, which it was given. He spent more than three weeks in Delhi’s Tihar Jail. His bail application was opposed by the public prosecutors on the ground that his presence in Delhi will cause law and order problems. Azad was allegedly denied medical care while in jail, which later the court had to order the Delhi Police to grant.
Additional sessions judge Kamini Lau granted him bail on the condition that he will not enter Delhi for a month. When this order was challenged, the advocates representing the state again opposed his plea for the right of free movement.
It is clear that Chandrashekhar Azad has shaken up the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah government much more. His mural in Jamia Millia Islamia has become a selfie point now. He is the underdog whom that those opposed to the government want to see victorious.
The real opposition
So, what explains the BJP’s rough handling of Azad?
I have four reasons:
1. Azad threatens the Hindu vs Muslim binary that the BJP wants to create with the CAA and the NRC. A Dalit leader, holding a copy of the Constitution, opposing CAA-NRC from the stairs of Jama Masjid is an image that the BJP doesn’t want to see. He is supported by both Dalits and Muslims.
2. Azad has the potential to encroach the BJP vote bank, especially Dalits. That is not good for the BJP at a time when it is trying to woo them with initiatives like Ambedkar Navodaya Schools. The Dalit-Muslim unity scares the BJP.
3. Azad is a novelty in politics. Unlike Kanhaiya, who has already lost an election in Bihar and whose party has fared badly, Azad’s potential is yet to be tested. He may or may not fizzle out in the course of time, but at this moment, he is creating hope.
4. Kanhaiya is not supported by his own social group – the ‘upper caste’ Hindus. This is not the case with Azad. The Bhim Army chief is being seen as the next big Dalit leader in Indian politics.
So, Chandrashekhar Azad, and not Kanhaiya Kumar, is the best icon that anti-CAA-NRC movement has produced. And the Narendra Modi government knows it.
The author is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi magazine, and has authored books on media and sociology. Views are personal.
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