Opinion | How the old elite managed to co-opt Kanhaiya Kumar4 min read . Updated: 21 Apr 2019, 11:04 PM IST
The poor are co-opted into systems where the rich hold all the cards. That is how the rich win
A few years ago, the Indian edition of Vogue ran a fashion spread that featured poor Indians holding expensive objects, including a Burberry umbrella and an Hermes Birkin bag. Outrageerupted across India—chiefly from the Zara constituency, where most of the righteous exist, but also the Hermes crowd. In August last year, they may have seen another image of a poor Indian holding a luxury item, but they were not offended. In fact, they loved it. It was a photograph of 31-year-old Kanhaiya Kumar standing with his mother holding a bound copy of his “African Studies" doctoral thesis.
At first glance, it is a happy photograph. He was submitting his thesis to his mother who, he tweeted, “never let poverty interfere with my dreams".
Embedded in this happy photograph is also a sad image if we know how to frame it. A bright young man from a poor family, who had no interest in science or mathematics, was compelled by an omnipresent elite influence to invest the best years of his life in higher education in the luxury streams of humanities. He first graduated in geography, and devoted his twenties to a doctorate at Jawaharlal Nehru University, which often serves as the refuge of arts students who want to escape adult life.
What Nehruvians call an aspiration of the poor is in reality co-option by the rich. The poor, especially the smart, are always co-opted into systems where the rich hold all the cards. That is how the rich win. It is cruel that Kanhaiya’s thesis must be titled The Process Of Decolonization And Social Transformation In South Africa. For what he had surrendered to, by pursuing the mythical prestige of a doctoral thesis, was a form of colonization in itself.
It would be unspeakably foolish to think that knowledge is meant for the rich alone, but there is something about the formal pursuit of degrees in the humanities that is wasteful if you are a very poor man.
A few months ago, Kanhaiya Kumar said that Narendra Modi was an “incompetent" son. It is possible that Kanhaiya’s mother does not think that of her own son, though his protracted education did not alter the fact that she was and still is a poor woman.
Most of us who were not dealt a good hand in our lives devoted our twenties to finding ways to prosper. We stood in queues in post offices to send money to our mothers, and one day we wondrously wired the same. Kanhaiya Kumar, though, was in African Studies, and he was immersed in student politics, whose relationship with real life is that of tennis-ball cricket to a test-match.
But then isn’t it true that Kanhaiya Kumar has succeeded? If it were not for the long asylum of JNU and its student politics, where he was elected president of the students union, he may have become a nameless underpaid journalist who is co-opted by activism, which is journalism at a 50% discount. And what is so great about becoming a call-centre employee or another kind of a corporate slave?
Instead, today Kanhaiya Kumar is a man who has some sway over millions of poor Indians. He says humane things in Hindi, a language that has, in recent times, become a medium of facile aggression and hatred. And he says it all like a stand-up comedian. He is a comedian who is not called a comedian, a writer who is not considered a writer, a theatre actor who is not known as an actor. People underestimate how powerful it is to be what the world does not think you are. He is also a politician who is not fully identified as a politician. All this happened because he surrendered to co-option by old elites in the humanities.
But then, the accident of his success, the accident of a foolish move by the Modi government that converted Kanhaiya Kumar into a martyr and brought national attention to his exquisite oratorial skills, masks a bleak truth. There are hundreds of thousands of smart young men like him who are co-opted into systems that limit their lives, or even deeply harm them.
The late Rohith Vemula, once a student of the University of Hyderabad, is an example of a boy who did not make it. Though he wished to be a science writer, he abandoned microbiology for sociology, an academic discipline that appears to be a nest of melancholic left-wing activism. He did not realize that the negativity of the left in India is merely the grouse of one set of elites who have lost their prestige to another set of elites. They transmit a lot of negativity but then go back to their aesthetic spaces. Boys like Vemula return to their depressing hostel rooms that smell of Margo soap, damp walls and sweaty lungis. Activism is an extremely dangerous space for the depressed among the poor.
Even Kanhaiya Kumar almost did not make it. Until he was saved by politics—real politics. That is what is common between him and his arch-enemy, Narendra Modi. Both of them were poor men who would have amounted to nothing if it were not for politics. India is rigged in such a way that apart from sports, the only sphere where the talented poor can do well is mass politics.
But then, even as a politician—currently as a Lok Sabha candidate of the Communist Party of India for the Begusarai constituency in Bihar—Kanhaiya Kumar seems to have been co-opted by the same old elites.
For a sanctimonious man who frequently expresses disdain for capitalism, he is now part a political organisation that looks like a farcical derivative of some thought experiments of two wealthy German migrants that the world took too seriously.
Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’.