Prime Minister Narendra Modi will struggle hard to recover from the deadly punches Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union leader Kanhaiya Kumar threw at him in his fiery speech on the evening of March 3, hours after his release on bail in a sedition case.

No doubt, Modi will continue to remain prime minister for another three years and he may continue to win elections here and there. But what he seems to have lost irreversibly – unless he takes urgent corrective measures – is the authority and prestige he commands because of the post he holds.

Modi stands diminished. This is because Kumar has conveyed to the nation through his speech – beamed live on just about every channel – that Modi has chosen to govern not as prime minister of all citizens, but only of the Sangh Parivar and other Hindutva adherents. That he oversees an extremely partisan administration, brooks no opposition and criticism, and that his government has deliberately triggered an ideological war that his party wishes to win by conjuring up episodes to justify the use of state power. Kumar also trained the spotlight on the many promises Modi made to the electorate, but he seemingly never intended to implement.

Previous attacks

Others, too, have criticised Modi by employing more or less the same tropes Kumar took recourse to in his speech. You can count among them Rahul Gandhi, Nitish Kumar, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Sitaram Yechury, and Arvind Kejriwal, who only a couple of months ago tweeted about the prime minister being a “coward” and a “psychopath”. But they are recognised as electoral rivals of Modi. It is their job, perhaps, even their responsibility, to corner the prime minister. In attacking Modi, they only conform to our expectations.

Kumar does not suffer from what can be called the handicap of expectations. He doesn’t have an election to win, power to grab, a political career to fashion – though his speech of March 3 could well become the beginning of one. He is among the many student leaders on our campuses owing allegiance to the Left or Centrist or Right parties. He has been wronged and maligned. To us, therefore, his speech had the fury of the innocent, who is palpably shocked to discover the workings of the system. This was why his speech sounded to us as our voice, that of the common person.

In contrast to the attacks of seasoned political leaders on Modi, Kumar’s seemed selfless, undertaken at great risk. He isn’t, after all, insulated from the blowback of the state, as most politicians are. Only three weeks ago, he had been arrested and interrogated. He had been thrashed on the court premises. Unmindful of his recent tribulations, Kumar still came out with his guns blazing. To his listeners, he came across as a courageous young man willing to take on the country’s most powerful man.

The courage Kumar displayed challenges an enduring myth about Modi – that he doesn’t forgive his critics, that he is a strongman who evokes fear in those around him. When Modi came to Delhi as prime minister, bureaucrats stopped airing views about their ministries over the phone, fearing it was tapped and somebody would be listening in. There were many juicy, but disturbing, stories about Union ministers cowering before Modi.

David vs Goliath

The belief that Modi is to be feared has been shattered by the many barbs Kumar threw at him, each cheered lustily by the audience surrounding him in JNU. He was mocking Modi’s power as well as daring him. It is possible his government may still retaliate against Kumar, but only at its own peril. It would only reinforce the growing impression that Modi is authoritarian, brought out in Kumar’s reference to Hitler. The student leader said, “Modiji was talking about [Joseph] Stalin and [Nikita] Khrushchev in Parliament. When I heard him speaking I felt like saying...Modiji, please speak about Hitler a little.”

But the perceived authoritarian streak in Modi is not only because of his personality but because of the ideology to which he subscribes. The student leader asked Modi to talk about “Mussolini whose black cap you wear, who [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh founder, MS] Golwarkar sahib went to meet”. In other words, it is the Hindutva ideology which has Modi, as also the Sangh outfits, embracing an authoritarian style of functioning, being intolerant of differences of opinion.

Scarcely before has a prime minister been rebuked so publicly. It was David taking on Goliath. Kanhaiya’s speech will be seen as a battle between the powerless and the powerful, between the privileged and the common person. Kanhaiya did not let his listeners forget that he belongs to an impoverished family, that JNU has provided him and others of his class an avenue for social mobility, to be educated in the country’s premier educational institute. Modi is the other, the powerful and rich foe. Modi’s chaiwala persona has been denuded of its symbolical meaning.

Sharp polarisation

Obviously, Kumar’s speech will have enraged Sangh Parivar supporters, as it will enthuse their ideological opponents. But this illustrates vividly that the Modi Sarkar has become partisan, commanding the respect and deference of only those who belong to the prime minister’s party and a segment of those who voted for it in the 2014 elections. You will not even have neutral political pundits express dismay at Kanhaiya being disrespectful to the prime minister and diminishing his stature overnight.

They will not do so because Modi isn’t perceived to be just and fair, as is expected of any prime minister. In a democracy, governments do try to execute the agendas of their parties and hope to establish the dominance of their respective ideologies. But this cannot and should not be at the expense of fair play; it cannot and should not lead members of society to win the ideological battle through bloodletting. Modi has forgotten these aspects of governance, choosing to remain silent even as his own party members have tried to light one fire after another through divisive programmes like love jihad, ghar wapsi, cow protection, and the ongoing attempt to crush dissent.

It, therefore, did not come as a surprise that Kumar should have referred to Modi’s tweets and his "Mann ki Baat" radio programme. Over the months, these outlets have come to signify Modi’s refusal to speak on issues agitating the people. These are merely his devices to trumpet his government’s programmes or remember those who constitute the pantheon of Sangh leaders.

Like many others, Kumar too was railing against the prime minister’s style of communication. It is a style which doesn’t establish conversation, refuses to engage critics, and revels in the adulation of his followers. His government has consequently become the government of the Bharatiya Janata Party, by the Bharatiya Janata Party, for Bharatiya Janata Party supporters. All other Indians are rivals who have to be fought – and vanquished through means fair or foul.

Kumar portrayed the government as insensitive and hard-hearted, most tellingly by quoting his mother, who had asked, “Why doesn’t Modi speak of Maa [Mother] ki baat [instead of Mann Ki Baat]?” It speaks of a government indifferent to the anguish of mothers, their silent lament. In our collective consciousness, this is now neatly juxtaposed with the prime minister and his ministers who are forever paying obeisance to Bharat Mata or Mother India.

Lessons to be learnt

In many ways, Kumar has undermined the moral legitimacy of the Modi government. He has shown it to be culpable of triggering debates on spurious issues to divert popular attention from its own failings. As Kumar said, “Do not try to separate the constable, the farmer, the soldier, poor people like me, by creating distorted binaries. I salute the soldiers, but have you ever thought of their families, the families of farmers who are forced to commit suicide?”

The distorted binaries, Kumar suggested, have been created to ensure people do not remember Modi’s elections promises of “sabka saath, sabka vikas” (Together with all, development for all), of bringing back black money from abroad, and depositing Rs 15 lakh in each person’s account. From this perspective, it is not only a government for the BJP supporters, but also against the people.

It is likely that Kumar’s speech will be ignored by Modi with his customary disdain. Or he will continue to perceive the growing criticism against his government as a conspiracy of the Gandhis, the communists, the socialists, the anarchists, et al. He will, as he did in Parliament on March 3, accuse Rahul Gandhi of suffering from an inferiority complex, of being jealous that he isn’t the prime minister. In his speech, Modi also said, “We need to make an atmosphere of improving trust. If you have suggestions, please do so. The government also needs to improve and this will not happen without your support.”

To improve, the prime minister must heed Kumar's words. His is the voice of the people. Five years after the anti-corruption movement, it isn’t Parliament that has stirred the nation, but a common person, a young man from the backwaters of Bihar. Kumar’s rise, ironically, also reflects the declining significance of Parliament in our lives.