Kanhaiya Kumar may be India’s ‘AOC’ moment

No election is without the odd surprise or an unexpected twist.  But rarely does the underdog become greater than the electoral battle itself. Such was the case with Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, or AOC as she is now popularly referred to across the United States. Before she was even elected as the US house representative for New York’s 14th Congressional district in the mid-term elections of November 2018, AOC had already become the stuff of legend, having defeated the Democratic Caucus Chair Joe Crowley in the primary elections.

AOC’s radical appeal, her youthfulness and dashing ability to turn the unthinkable into the realm of the possible is transforming America into a space for hopeful politics.  A full continent away in India, however, the captivating story of Kanhaiya Kumar is now fast mirroring the AOC phenomenon.

On 12 February, 2016, Kumar, who was then the elected president of the student’s union in the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), was dramatically arrested, jailed and charged with sedition by the Indian government. Upon being released a couple of weeks later, Kumar went on to grip the nation by delivering an astounding speech from the steps of the JNU administration building. Not only did he eloquently take down the government, but also went on to mockingly lay bare the ruling party’s many designs for throttling democracy and ending secularism in India.

Kumar’s speech, in lyrical Hindi and ringing with wholesome metaphors, was widely televised, went viral on social media and also won enormous applause from the Indian opposition. A ‘national political star’ was born. Kumar became one of the most sought after critical voices in India – a regular fixture in television studios – and trooped across the country speaking about the people’s issues. Young, fresh and effortlessly able to convey a compelling left and democratic vision for India, Kumar successfully carved a new narrative that was able to take on the government.

Since his arrest, Kumar was awarded his PhD, wrote a book and moved on to become a full time political activist (different from being a career politician, as he reminds everyone). And, not unexpectedly, in the country’s general elections of 2019, he is fighting a David versus Goliath battle for his home constituency of Begusarai (State of Bihar, North India) as the candidate for the Communist Party of India.

Begusarai is no sleepy backwater. It has almost two million voters and is a district steeped in a complicated history of left politics and upper caste domination, populated by a large rural poor and beset by uneven industrialisation. This is also the birth place of Kanhaiya, who is no stranger to the district’s many charms and dangers. His main opponent is the wily and battle hardened 66-year-old Giriraj Singh, of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), and a serving minister in the current government

Giriraj Singh is no pushover, he is a Bhumihar, the same ‘upper caste’ that Kanhaiya Kumar belongs to, but brings to the contest heaps of money, muscle and a large army of BJP supporters. The odds are all stacked in his favour and Giriraj’s campaign has let it known that they will leave no stone unturned to achieve a thumping win.

But Kumar, like AOC, has moved the unthinkable into the realm of the possible. Begusarai has quickly become one of the ground-zero constituencies of the Indian elections and has begun to attract exhaustive media coverage. Kumar and his collection of inspired volunteers have been scouring the villages, knocking on doors, talking to people on dusty streets, engaging with voters in the deep corners of the constituency and, above all else, soaking the district in Kanhaiya’s lyrical prose and evocative calls for justice and change.

As Giriraj and his supporters loudly rumble across Begusarai in flashy motorcades, Kumar’s dedicated band of volunteers have chosen instead not to fight money and muscle on the same terms. Their small but not insignificant voice continuously calls for a society free from violence and hatred and aim to inspire people’s hearts and minds. Kumar might just have the last word: that truth can talk back to power.

By Varun Aditya Chauhan & Amit Manju Singh
Special to The Times, Kuwait