Aware that Jawaharlal Nehru University students’ union president Kanhaiya Kumar’s electrifying speech after his release from Tihar Jail on Thursday has won him a fan following beyond the hardcore support base of the Left, the Communist Party of India is gradually veering around to the view that it should not rush to plunge him into electoral politics. At least, not immediately.

This is despite the fact that two former Left bastions – Kerala and West Bengal – are due for polls this year.

There is, instead, an acknowledgement that Kumar would serve the Left better if he could help build a larger movement against the BJP. Left leaders feel he could do this if he was deployed at universities across the country to tap those who don’t necessarily subscribe to the Left ideology but are not favourably inclined to the Bharatiya Janata Party either.

Using Kumar strategically

Soon after Kumar’s rousing speech, leaders of Communist parties had rushed to own Kumar and announced that he would campaign for the Left Front in the upcoming Assembly elections. Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury had said that since the student leader was a Left activist, he would “naturally campaign” for the Left Front in both West Bengal and Kerala.

Kumar is a leader of All India Students’ Federation, the students’ wing of the Communist Party of India. The party’s national secretary D Raja spoke in the same vein. He said that Kumar may be deployed in the state elections as there was a huge demand for him to campaign.

However, the Communist Party of India is now having second thoughts about this. Although no final view has emerged in this regard, preliminary internal discussions in the party indicate that it would prefer to first tap Kumar’s appeal to reach out to a larger audience.

This stems from the realisation that the current popularity of the Jawaharlal Nehru University students’ union president could well turn out to be a passing phase if he is confined to conventional party politics. Raja is learnt to have made this point at the two-day meeting of the Communist Party of India national executive, which concluded in Hyderabad on Tuesday.

Netting students

Instead of campaigning for the Left for the Assembly polls, Kumar is now likely to travel to universities across the country to address students and speak about issues they grapple with – ranging from the problem of fellowships to the discrimination faced by Dalit students.

Communist Party of India leaders admit that Kumar’s release-day speech has touched a chord among a wide audience in universities and colleges across the country even among those who are not traditional supporters of the Left, and those who are not inclined to, or feel let down, by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s brand of politics.

The leaders feel that the Left will be able to reach out to this section and possibly build a larger movement only if Kumar was free to speak to them as a student leader from a broad-based platform. “He will have greater impact,” remarked a senior CPI leader. “The party can utilise him for electoral politics later. It may not be a good idea to do so right now.”

This is not an easy decision for a cadre-based party like the Communist Party of India. There is a section in the party that believes that individual members should not be allowed to be larger and bigger than the party. Its more conservative elements would prefer that Kumar worked as a disciplined member of the party.

Kanhaiya in demand

For the present, Kumar is the flavour of the season as student bodies, social activists and politicians from across the political spectrum (excluding the BJP) line up to invite him to address them. A trip to his home state of Bihar is on the cards, where a hero’s welcome awaits Kumar.

Kumar will then visit Hyderabad Central University, which was thrown into turmoil following the suicide of Dalit research scholar Rohith Vemula. Describing Vemula as his icon, the Jawaharlal Nehru University students’ union president spoke about taking up the cause of Dalit students during his speech the day he was released on bail. He is also expected to travel to Allahabad University to stand in solidarity with Richa Singh – the first female president of the university’s students' union and a member of the All India Students’ Federation – who is being harassed by university authorities and members of the BJP’s students’ wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. His next stop could be Jadavpur University in West Bengal that has seen protests and marches to show solidarity with the beleaguered Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Security concerns

However, Raja said that Kumar’s travel plans will be contingent on the security provided to him by the government. He said his party has written to home minister Rajnath Singh apprising him about the threats to Kumar’s life and asked him to ensure his safety. “At present Kanhaiya Kumar is confined to the JNU campus,” said Raja. “He will be able to move out once his security arrangements are finalised.”

Having failed to come up with an effective counter to the BJP’s aggressive play of the nationalist card, mainstream political parties are now depending on Kumar to challenge the ruling party’s latest narrative and build a larger movement against it by transcending narrow political divisions. They believe he can make a beginning by reaching out to students and youth who had joined the Modi fan club during the last Lok Sabha elections, but are now getting increasingly disillusioned with the prime minister.

Although political parties acknowledge that Kumar has scored over them in this regard, they are drawing solace from the fact that Kumar’s rousing speech has rattled the BJP.

Both BJP president Amit Shah and finance minister Arun Jaitley specifically referred to the Jawaharlal Nehru University episode when they addressed members of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha in Vrindavan over the weekend to articulate the party's position on nationalism, which is to be taken up aggressively first in the coming Assembly polls and then in next year’s crucial Uttar Pradesh elections.

Convinced that the themes of nationalism and patriotism resonate among the people, the BJP has made a conscious decision to turn to emotive issues for political gain. It has to be seen if Kanhaiya Kumar can help the BJP’s political rivals shift the focus of this discourse to bread-and-butter issues.