Don't let Kanhaiya Kumar's JNU speech fool you, he's no future PM

The JNUSU president thinks he is flying high, but is actually walking on thin ice.

 |  7-minute read |   04-03-2016
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Hardik Patel and Kanhaiya Kumar are two comets who have suddenly blazed across the Indian political horizon, garnering great publicity on TV and getting support among certain powerful sections of the society.

While the former led an agitation that shook the Anandiben Patel government in Gujarat, the latter became a martyr merely by being arrested. Kanhaiya's bail was celebrated like a triumph at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and his so-called "victory speech" went viral.

Sadly, the two have been born in the wrong era. A few decades back and they would have aspired to be future prime ministers of India. However today, the only thing they can aspire for is "azadi" from jail.

Also read - Not asking for freedom from India, but freedom for India: Kanhaiya at JNU

There are many reasons for this, but first let's go back a bit. In the 1960s, when the Naxalite movement erupted in West Bengal, it had a deep impact on students studying in universities and the Naxalist ideology still has many takers in the state's universities.

The Students' Federation of India (SFI) was formed in 1970 and today is a giant with more than six million members. The National Students' Union of India (NSUI) of the Congress followed in 1971 and Sanjay Gandhi, the unofficial dictator of the Emergency, surrounded himself with youth leaders. The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the BJP, was one of the oldest student bodies, but it became really popular in the 1970s.

Also read: Kanhaiya's 'Azadi in India' aside, listen to those who want 'Azadi from India'

In 1974, students from an engineering college in Gujarat started the Navnirman Andolan which led to a national uprising, the Emergency and the eventual toppling of the Congress at the Centre for the first time.

Student politics had really become big business. The grooming of students for political leadership started early and they became a force to reckon with in every major agitation. Many leaders like Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar started young and even the incumbent Union finance minister Arun Jaitley was associated with the ABVP earlier.

Delhi University student Rajeev Goswami caught national headlines during the Mandal Commission agitation in 1990 with his self-immolation bid. He became Delhi University Students' Union (DUSU) president, but quit politics later on health grounds, dying at the age of 33.

Also read: The night Kanhaiya Kumar reclaimed JNU and azadi

With the death of Rohith Vemula - a Dalit scholar at the Hyderabad Central University (HCU)- and the JNU agitation gaining banner headlines, you might be thinking that the already powerful student politics has just got a booster shot in 2016.

But I would argue on the contrary: that this is actually the first nail in the coffin of student politics in India.

Let me explain.

First, even though the BJP and Congress have the ABVP and NSUI respectively, it is, by and large, the communist unions that dominate student politics. Rohith Vemula started his student career with the SFI whose political masters is the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

JNU Students' Union (JNUSU) president Kanhaiya Kumar is of the All India Students' Federation (AISF), which is associated with the Communist Party of India (CPI). The post was held before him by Ashutosh Kumar of the All India Students' Association (AISA), which is associated with the Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist).

The year 2014 was a watershed for communist politics in India. For the first time in decades, the Left parties found themselves decimated in the Lok Sabha and out of power in their strongholds of West Bengal and Kerala.

They are on the decline in the Rajya Sabha and are struggling to stay relevant. The CPM and CPI are dying parties and the Naxals are finally on the run. It is difficult to see how these parties will continue to fund and support student unions whose memberships run into millions.

The second major factor is the liberalisation of 1991. Till that year, the idealism that drove socialism and communism was alive and kicking. Congress president Sonia Gandhi tried to revive that idealism during UPA 1 and 2 but that also fizzled out in 2014.

The youth of today is drawn more towards capitalism than communism. If you play student politics, then you may have an advantage in communist politics, but not so in the corporate world which will actually frown on such activities.

Thirdly, once upon a time, student politics used to be a great start to many careers. You could make great contacts in the powerful ruling communist ecosystem of India and even enter the NGO sector.

But Prime Minister Narendra Modi is dismantling this at great speed and career avenues for those student politicians who don't get anything in the corporate sector are narrowing greatly.

Fourth, the internet never forgets. All our current senior political leaders have spouted nonsense that they regret and did things that could have finished off their political careers. But there is no record of that today.

Now everything you do is recorded. Every misdeed goes viral on social media and proof in the form of photos and videos will haunt you for life. US president Barack Obama once told a group of students that when they applied for a government job, their every footprint on the internet would be inspected threadbare. If something out of place was found, then they could kiss a government job goodbye, forever.

That applies to the corporate sector too. There were dozens of faces seen in the JNU videos. You can be sure that whenever they go for a job interview, the recruiters will see those videos endlessly and be put off.

While the TV channels are celebrating Kanhaiya's release and his victory speech, a big point being missed is that there have been cases against ten others and 20 more will be questioned by the police. Have these 30 been branded for life and will they struggle to get a corporate job if they don't join politics?

That's a more interesting debate as is the thoughts of hundreds of their friends who are watching these developments with alarm. Even Hardik was done in by video evidence and is still cooling his heels in jail.

Finally, the system itself is changing. Time was when you could fight an election and rule from jail. A case in point is former Bihar chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav. But now, if you get convicted, then you are unfit to hold a MP/MLA post and you are ejected from Parliament/Assembly instantaneously.

This means that if Hardik and Kanhaiya get a conviction from any court, they won't even be able to contest elections, forget making political careers. Right now, Kanhaiya is gallivanting all across news channels and savouring life as a hero.

But all you have to do is read the judge's views on the matter to see how far that is from the reality. Apart from coming down strongly on the whole matter, the judge has ordered Kanhaiya not to "participate actively or passively in any activity which may be termed as anti-national".

There is another warning: Sometimes it may require surgical intervention also. However, if the infection results in affecting the limb to the extent that it becomes gangrene, amputation is the only treatment.

Ouch! Tough words indeed! That's also a severe rebuke of how the JNU student politicians have conducted themselves.

Kanhaiya thinks he is flying high, but is actually walking on thin ice. One false step and he'll find himself back in jail because his interim bail can be cancelled. Indian student politics itself is in a similarly precarious position and may not last for many more years.

Writer

Sunil Rajguru Sunil Rajguru @sunilrajguru

The author is a Bengaluru-based journalist and blogger.

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