Lounge goes on the campaign trail with first-time candidate Kanhaiya Kumar and his young team of idealists in Begusarai
The young Kanhaiya is seeking to transform himself from a compelling student leader to a successful popular politician
If you don’t see it with your own eyes, it’s hard to believe," says Master Zafar. The 68-year-old teacher had started early from his village to reach Bihat in Begusarai. With him, sit several others, all unknown to each other, who have come from different parts of Begusarai to see Kanhaiya Kumar, the Communist Party of India (CPI) candidate from the constituency.
He walks in a few minutes later. Master Zafar holds Kanhaiya’s face in his hands. “Bas tumko apni nazar se dekhna tha, gareebon ko mat bhoolna beta, gareebi ko kabhi mat bhoolna. Ab mulk tumhare hawale (I just had to see you with my own eyes, don’t forget the poor, never forget poverty. The country is in your hands now)," he says. Others shake hands with Kanhaiya, 32, all of them hug him, most take pictures on their phones. The meeting is brief and hurried.
It is early April and polling is about three weeks away. At a distance, cars are being readied for the first day of campaigning. Young women and men frequently dash across the courtyard. Some have notepads with lists, some are making phone calls, and some are checking their walkie-talkies.
Rohit Kumar, 20, is also from Bihat. Currently doing his bachelor’s in education, he drives the second car that trails Kanhaiya. Once we’re inside the car, he picks up his phone, opens Google Assistant and voices the name of a song from the Bollywood movie Mukkabaaz. The song is about rebellion: Bohot Hua Samman /Tumhari Aisi Taisi (Enough of respect, screw you now!)
Not many had heard of Kanhaiya Kumar before February 2016, when he was a PhD scholar in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). President of the JNU students’ union at the time, he was accused of raising the Kashmiri separatist slogan ofazadi, along with a few others, during an event organized to protest the hanging of Afzal Guru in the 2001 Parliament attack case, on the JNU campus. He was arrested on charges of sedition and produced before Delhi’s Patiala House court on 17 February 2016, where he was beaten up by lawyers inside the premises. There were death threats and mobs would gather outside JNU threatening violence against the students.
While Kanhaiya was in jail, students, academics and activists around the country rallied in support. There were protests, strikes and op-eds in newspapers. By the time he was released on bail, he had become an icon of political resistance. He delivered a powerful speech outside the administration block of JNU on 3 March 2016. It was telecast live and watched across the nation, and concluded in a euphoric anthem. As millions watched, he demanded azadi—from hunger, from poverty, from caste, from discrimination, from majoritarianism and patriarchy. Kanhaiya’s proclamation of azadi inspired rap songs, memes and slogans—an adaptation was used in the Bollywood movie Gully Boy recently.
Kanhaiya had become a national figure. For a section of people, he was anti-national, and they questioned his motives. But in interviews and meetings, an articulate Kanhaiya took them on with facts and the anthem of azadi. Little did he know that three years later he would be contesting in a national election and this forbidden song of freedom would bring him back home.
The first stop for the day is the village of Koria Haibatpur. Kanhaiya is greeted by the waiting crowd. “This is a fight between the politics of hate and the politics of real issues. Between truth and lies. The entire world is watching Begusarai," he says. “Democracy doesn’t work on the mercy of the powerful." The crowd cheers. “Hum bheed nahi hain, hum sab ummeedwar hain (We’re not just a crowd, each one of us is a candidate in this election)".
A man listens to Kanhaiya attentively while holding the marigold garland he has brought for him. “Gareeb ka neta hai. Swarth hai, is liye vote denge (he’s the leader of the poor, we’ll vote for him for selfish reasons)," says Bimla Devi, 55. In his first speech of the day, Kanhaiya invokes the most basic issues of poverty, education, jobs and healthcare. The other things he talks about are democracy and freedom.
Back in Bihat, a lone CPI flag flutters in Kanhaiya’s neighbourhood, which has a cluster of houses in the middle. The cluster is enclosed on three sides and a small street leads to an open space, scattered with chairs and cots, where meetings take place. Most of the houses have mud walls; some two-storeyed ones are made of concrete. Three white SUVs, donated by supporters, are parked in a field right behind the houses. Multiple CCTV cameras and bright lights at night have every corner of the area covered.
Kanhaiya’s neighbours, friends and relatives have pitched in with donations and vacated their houses to accommodate the campaign team. His trusted confidants are those he has known since childhood and they manage logistics such as rallies, coordination, travel and security.
One of the houses has a big hall with a television screen, maps of Begusarai, a few white boards, computers and a huge table. Access is restricted. There are separate teams for campaign strategy, field reporting and data management, media coordination, fund-raising and social media. Besides volunteers from the All India Students Federation (AISF) and CPI, these teams are run by Kanhaiya’s friends and advisers, most of whom he met in Delhi.
Kanhaiya’s own house is an open kitchen —run by his mother, sister and sister-in-law, with two other volunteers—that can seat eight people. A basic meal of dal and rice is served. Tea is made occasionally.
The campaign has attracted volunteers from across the country. There are students, artists, young professionals. “We get hundreds of messages every day from people who want to come here and help. Security is a concern and we have to turn them down," says A.N., who leads Kanhaiya’s social media team. A crowdfunding appeal on 25 March on Ourdemocracy.in drew lakhs of rupees soon after it was launched. Despite hackers targeting the site, the goal of ₹70 lakh was met within days.
While he was in jail, his friends had banded together to form Team Azadi in JNU to campaign for his release. “After his release, we just wanted to ensure he is safe. His life had changed, he couldn’t just walk outside the campus like a normal person. There was a constant threat of harm," says Zoony Zainab, a former JNU student and a member of Team Azadi.
Varun Chauhan, 32, is another member. “He didn’t want the spider to bite him. But when it did, he didn’t have a choice but to be Spider-Man," he says, speaking about Kanhaiya’s transition. Chauhan quit his job in advertising to work with Kanhaiya full-time. “Our lives have changed with him," he adds.
On the way to Parna, the next village, Kanhaiya stops at a temple. An elderly woman hugs him. Kumar walks up to a statue of Chandrasekhar Singh and offers flowers. A prominent CPI leader, and later a minister in the Bihar government, Singh brought glory to the CPI in Begusarai for decades.
“They try to divide us by caste and by faith. They want us to hate each other," says Kanhaiya in his address. “Hum paise se gareeb hain, aqal se gareeb nahi (We may not have money but we have brains). Why do we have to go to work so far away? We want to create more jobs here in Begusarai. Why should our children go so far away to study? Why do we not have a university in the birthplace of Dinkar?" Ramdhari Singh “Dinkar", a progressive Hindi poet and writer, often called Rashtrakavi, was born in Begusarai’s Simaria village. One of his famous lines is “Sinhasan khaali karo ke janata aati hai (vacate the throne, here come the people)".
“We will not make a single false promise. If we win, all of us will win together. If we lose, all of us will lose together," Kanhaiya had said the night before, while addressing his team. “I am amazed at his ability to democratize every decision," says Zainab. Sonam Goyal and Kacho Fayaz, who contested against Kanhaiya in JNU, are campaigning for him in Begusarai.
“Kya BJP ko harana asambhav hai (Is it impossible to defeat the BJP)?" asks Rohit in a moment of reflection, while driving behind Kanhaiya’s car. “Agar dil se karo, toh ho jayega (If we do it sincerely, it can be done)," he adds after a pause. “Saari duniya ki nazar Begusarai pe hai. Sab dekh rahe hain ke nafrat jeetegi ya asli mudde, sach jeetega ya jhooth (The entire world is watching Begusarai, whether hate will win or real issues, whether truth will win or lies)," Kanhaiya says in almost every speech.
In 2006, Begusarai was on a government list of 250 most backward districts in the country. The largest group in Begusarai consists of Bhumihars (traditional landowners), followed by Muslims. Then come the Koiris, Kurmis, Kushwahas, Yadavs, Dalits, Rajputs and others.
The CPI hasn’t won this Lok Sabha seat since 1967, but it had an iron grip on all the seven constituencies in state elections in the mid-1990s. By 2010, however, the CPI had been reduced to just one assembly seat, which it lost in 2015. It still controls active unions of workers, farmers and students. The Congress has won the Lok Sabha seat eight times, the last time in 1998. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Janata Dal (United), or JD(U), have held the seven state constituencies for years now. The BJP’s Bhola Singh had won the Lok Sabha seat in 2014. He had started his career as an independent in 1967 and had joined the CPI. From there, he went to the Congress, then to Lalu Prasad’s RJD, and, finally, the BJP. Singh died in October. The much-coveted Lok Sabha seat of Begusarai has been vacant since.
Kanhaiya’s primary opponents are the BJP’s Giriraj Singh and the RJD’s Tanveer Hassan. Singh, 66, was publicly upset about being denied a ticket from neighbouring Nawada. Known for his affiliation to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), he has often called his opponents anti-national. Singh is a Bhumihar, the same caste as Kanhaiya.
Hassan, 59, is an RJD veteran and ideologically opposed to the right wing. Hassan and Kanhaiya have shared the stage at least once. This was at a time when it was unclear if the CPI would be part of the mahagathbandhan (alliance) in Bihar.
Hassan has often evaded the question of Kanhaiya being his primary opponent. Kanhaiya dismisses the notion of the Begusarai election being a triangular contest and has made it clear that he will not attack the RJD or Hassan. Both consider themselves the original challengers to the BJP and Giriraj Singh.
The Bhumihar vote may be split between Singh and Kanhaiya. The Muslim vote may be split between Kanhaiya and Hassan. The Yadavs have traditionally voted for the RJD and the Dalits for the CPI.
A majority of Kanhaiya’s supporters have no affiliation to either the CPI or the left in general. They had assumed he would be the mahagathbandhan candidate, with the Congress and RJD supporting him, and were disappointed when it did not happen. It is believed that the RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav did not support his candidature, anticipating a revival of the CPI in Begusarai.
By the time we reach Neema Chandpura village, making countless short stops along the way, it is already afternoon. Kanhaiya takes the stage. ‘Who says there is no mahagathbandhan? I see it everywhere. At a tea stall, in the buses, in the fields," he says. He is laying claim to Begusarai, just as Begusarai is laying claim to him.
Bholanath, 42, says, “Mitti ne neta paida kiya hai (the soil has borne a leader)." Questioned about his appeal across castes and faiths, Abdul Rehman, 52, says, “Zaat kyun poochte hain, neta de rahe hain aapko (why talk of caste, we’re giving you a leader)."
One of Kanhaiya’s campaign slogans is Neta nahi, beta (not a politician, but a son). This resonates with his audience for two reasons. First, they see him as one of their own. “You should be able to grab your representative by the collar and make them do your work," he says in meetings through the day. “They have boards saying ‘kutton se savdhan’ (beware of dogs) outside their gates. Will you ever be able to talk to them?" he asks. Access, as a promise, is not new. Only time will tell how open Kanhaiya’s doors will be.
Voters in Begusarai have not taken well to the right-wing’s “anti-national" tag. Bholanath says, “Hamare bete ko deshdrohi bola, 29 tareekh ko batayenge kaun deshdrohi hai (They have called our son anti-national. We will show them on 29 April who is anti-national)."
While his opponents are relying mostly on caste and faith, Kanhaiya’s campaign strategists are mindful of age and gender too. There is a dedicated campaign for women. Issues of domestic and sexual violence and the “Vishakha ‘decision’ of the hon’ble Supreme Court (sic)" are part of his manifesto. The young see him as “an educated and qualified candidate (sic)". With an average age of 25, his is possibly the youngest campaign team.
When it comes to social media, his Twitter posts are targeted at a wider audience. In contrast, Facebook and YouTube posts get thousands of likes and shares locally, within minutes. Begusarai is a hyper-localized election. WhatsApp broadcast lists are updated every day.
Vivek Singh, 18, a BSc student and a campaign volunteer, is one of the administrators of the many WhatsApp groups that have come up organically. These include We Want Communism, Support Kanhaiya and Sansad Dr. Kanhaiya Kumar. Zainab says that two boys in his local volunteer team have faced resistance at home. They didn’t want to talk about it because their families want to vote for Hassan.
“Jo azadi beta apne baap se mangta hai, woh Kanhaiya stage pe chadh ke maangta hai (the freedom a son asks of a father, Kanhaiya asks for it on the stage)," she adds.
There was a controversy when Giriraj Singh’s supporters started chanting the azadi slogan outside the Sidhpeeth Badi Durga temple. They were asking for “vaampanth se azadi (freedom from communism)". In almost all his meetings, the audience asks Kanhaiya for the azadi song. Invariably, he obliges.
On the way to Chandpura village, a group of young men block his way, complaining that the village road hasn’t been repaired in decades. “Road nahi toh vote nahi (No road, no vote)," they say. The men invite Kanhaiya to their village. Kanhaiya promises to repair the road if he wins. “Begusarai mein desh ki bhavishyawani hone waali hai (The fortunes of the country will be foretold in Begusarai)," he says.
Jean-Thomas Martelli, a Delhi-based researcher on student politics, calls this the “metamorphosis of the student leader". “There are stages in the transformation of a student leader to becoming a neta (politician)," he says. “From relying on friend circles and college networks, to breaking away and creating new networks, it is a learning curve. Losing your freedom and your agency, behavioural and physical changes like gaining weight are part of this process," he adds. Kanhaiya’s return to Begusarai is the final stage in this transformation.
His walk has changed, so has the way he talks. He has created three trusted circles of people from Begusarai—his friends of many years, his Team Azadi from JNU, and his comrades from the AISF and CPI.
“Personal kuch bacha hi nahi hai (Nothing personal is left). I had a life, I had a plan. I have lost both. Things have happened organically and I have just responded to them. If I live, I will hopefully retire one day," says Kanhaiya, sitting alone on the terrace of one of the houses, staring at the lone CPI flag. On being asked what he has lost, he pauses. “Azadi," he says.
The last stop for the day is a wedding. The opulence is surreal—ornate flower arrangements, chandeliers, projector screens, carpets, cars. The baraat has come from Hassan’s village. Inside, the nikaah has just been read in a hall that is about the size of a football field. People gather to congratulate the groom. There is commotion as Kanhaiya enters. All attention turns towards him.
“After so many betrayals, we don’t want our vote to go waste. He speaks the truth," says a 35-year-old businessman. By now, Kanhaiya is surrounded by a big crowd. Among them is a 19-year-old student. “He had come to our tuition class once. He read to us the chapter about Simon go back (sic). You know Simon (of the Simon Commission)?" he asks.“Dimaagh mein feed ho gaya woh (That is imprinted in my head)," he adds. Another student, 23, adds, “Like Amethi has Rahul Gandhi and Varanasi has Modi, Begusarai has Kanhaiya Kumar."
The independent Dalit MLA Jignesh Mevani, actors Swara Bhaskar and Prakash Raj, social activist Teesta Setalvad, lyricist Javed Akhtar and politician Yogendra Yadav have all campaigned for Kanhaiya. On the day of his nomination, the roads were packed. But the road to power is still perilous.
Despite the odds, Kanhaiya conjures hope, raising issues that matter. “Bhaiyya jab bolte hain toh aisa lagta hai hum jeet gaye (When he talks, we get the feeling we’ve won)," says Rohit, getting into the car. Kanhaiya says they have already won a “moral victory".
A poor boy from Begusarai, with nothing but disadvantage on his side, has taken on powerful adversaries, their muscle and money, and is promising social justice.
Kanhaiya is finally seated, surrounded by a growing crowd. Those who manage to get close shake hands with him. Some take selfies with him. Two men squeeze their way in to get a glimpse.
“Sadhaaran hai (He is ordinary)," says the first one.
“Ekdum sadhaaran hai (He is entirely ordinary)," agrees the other.
If you don’t see it with your own eyes, it’s hard to believe.
Path to the polls
9 FEBRUARY 2016
JNU protest event organized by the Democratic Students’ Union (DSU)
12 FEBRUARY 2016
Kanhaiya Kumar arrested
17 FEBRUARY 2016
Beaten up by lawyers at the Patiala House court
2 MARCH 2016
3 MARCH 2016
Charged speech in JNU
14 FEBRUARY 2019
Completes PhD (Tweeted about passing his viva and that he is officially Dr Kanhaiya Kumar)