Patna: The Lok Sabha dreams of Kanhaiya Kumar, the former JNU Student Union head who became a darling of the Left-liberal intelligentsia after being booked in a case of alleged sedition, seemed to be coming crashing down Thursday as trends showed him trailing Giriraj Singh, the BJP candidate who wanted all Modi critics to go to Pakistan in 2014.
As of 11 am, Singh had a lead of more than 90,000 votes over Kanhaiya, who contested on a Communist Party of India (CPI) ticket, in Bihar’s Begusarai constituency.
Singh had contested and won the 2014 election from Nawada, and was (rather reluctantly) shifted to Begusarai this poll season so his bastion could be set aside for BJP ally Lok Janshakti Party (LJP).
Throughout his campaign, he never referred to Kanhaiya by name, calling him, instead, a member of the “tukde-tukde gang”, the moniker Kanhaiya and his JNU cohorts have courted since a 2016 rally on the campus to mark the third anniversary of Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru’s execution.
There were allegations that some participants of the rally had raised seditious slogans, and the name has stuck with their critics since then.
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For someone who crowdfunded his campaign, Kanhaiya was quite a star in the Bihar elections, with celebrities such as Shabana Azmi, Javed Akhtar, Prakash Raj and Swara Bhasker flying down to the dusty town of Begusarai to canvass for him.
While Bhasker described Kanhaiya as a “friend”, Akhtar stoked a controversy by saying every vote against him was a vote in favour of the BJP, riling the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), which fielded former MLC Tanveer Hassan from the seat.
Hassan had lost the 2014 election to the BJP candidate by a margin of 60,000 votes.
A large group of JNU students also took a break from studies to campaign for him.
However, Kanhaiya started his campaign with the odds heavily stacked against him. He was not only fighting PM Narendra Modi but also local powerhouse and former chief minister Lalu Prasad of the RJD.
The CPI had expected the RJD to yield the seat — where the party still enjoys considerable popularity — to it, but Lalu refused even as he agreed to perform the same gesture for the CPI(M-L) in Ara.
This was apparently driven by Lalu’s perception that Kanhaiya could grow to be a threat to the political carer of his son Tejashwi Yadav, Bihar’s former deputy chief minister.
The caste factor
Begusarai has long been known as the “Leningrad of Bihar” for the pockets of support the Left still enjoys here. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the CPI candidate won 18 per cent of the vote, standing third, while the party wrested 23 per cent of the vote in 2009, coming second.
However, caste has been an important factor for voters in the seat, as it is in the rest of the state.
Kanhaiya and Singh both belong to the upper-caste community of Bhumihars, who dominate the constituency with a population of around 4.5 lakh. Caste played a dominant role in the election and the Bhumihars seem to have preferred to remain with the BJP, which is known to enjoy considerable support among the upper castes.
Kanhaiya had an assured vote count of just around one lakh from the CPI cadres. To have expected him to boost this base without the Muslim and Yadav voter base of the RJD was too optimistic — even with the celebrities and glittering campaign, which Singh admitted to his close aides had made him “sweat it out”.
The bright side
The CPI, meanwhile, is focusing on the positives of Kanhaiya’s run.
“What Kanhaiya may have succeeded in doing is galvanising a section of youngsters towards the CPI, which has been finding it hard to get the young generation on board,” said a CPI leader.
“The battle in Begusarai was not just another contest. It was a symbolic battle between PM Narendra Modi and the forces who have charged the PM with trying to destroy the country,” said CPI’s national executive member Nivedita Jha.
“It is immaterial if he has won or lost. Kanhaiya triggered an unknown phenomenon where people from all across the country came to campaign for him on their own dime,” she added.
“I remember two young girls from Amravati (Maharashtra) who had never seen JNU or Kanhaiya coming to campaign for him, as did a newly-married woman from Punjab,” she said. “The electoral battle was the strongest symbol of the fight against Modi and his steps to subvert the Constitution.”
However, there is some manner of resentment among a section of CPI members over Kumar’s rising profile.
“After the elections in Begusarai got over, Kanhaiya was asked to campaign in favour of the CPI candidate in Hazaribagh. The CPI-ML [also] requested him to campaign for their candidate in Ara… Instead, Kanhaiya went off to JNU,” said a senior CPI leader, stressing that he was “getting too big for the party to take action”.