As Indians vote in the country’s 17th parliamentary elections, Sarthak Bagchi (Ahmedabad University) goes on the campaign trail with Kanhaiya Kumar in Begusarai in what he argues is one of the key electoral contest in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
About a thousand miles away from the geographical ‘zero mile’ of India at Nyoutagpur, lies another ‘zero mile’ in a sleepy town in central Bihar called Begusarai. Known more popularly as, ‘jeero mile’, as the locals call it here, it is now becoming popular as a landmark to locate Begusarai’s most famous son, Kanhaiya Kumar. Kumar’s house in Bihat village is quite close to the ‘jeero mile’ which is usually provided to outsiders, as a landmark while explaining the directions to his house.
The need to mention Nagpur’s zero mile seems pertinent here, as apart from zero mile, Nagpur also claims to be home to another famous address, that of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) headquarters. Interestingly, it is the ideology and thought process of the RSS, which Kanhaiya Kumar’s politics claims and promises to be antithetical of. The gap between RSS and Kanhaiya’s political ideology and thought process is much greater than the geographical distance between Nagpur’s zero mile and Begusarai’s ‘Jeero mile’. It is the kind of polarising and narrow-minded politics of RSS that Kanhaiya Kumar claims and delivers ‘azaadi’ from.
Kanhaiya Kumar, the CPI candidate from Begusarai parliamentary constituency seems to be the National media’s newly favoured muse this election season, as there is a constant influx of television reporters and anchors from Patna and Delhi, who are parachuting down to Bihat to shoot a walk-about interview with Kanhaiya, discussing national elections and his ideas about opposing BJP and RSS while walking through a narrow khet-bund in the wheat field, right next to his house. The setting for these interviews matches the kind of grounded personality and the kind of son-of-the-soil image that Kanhaiya is projecting in his election campaign. The slogan, “neta nahi beta” is espousing this very factor that how the voters will be electing a local boy from the village, the son of an anganwadi worker, Meena Devi, should they chose to vote for him. The campaign is also harping on the mistrust that people in India usually have for politicians in specific and for politics in general. By his emotive appeal of ‘neta nahi beta’ Kanhaiya Kumar’s campaign is attempting to evoke a sense of endearment and familial tie between the voters and their representative, which plays out against this increasing mistrust and antipathy towards politicians. This is also how Kanhaiya, as the alternative politician or accidental politician is driving home the difference between him and other ‘regular’ politicians.
Photo: Kanhaiya Kumar on the campaign trail in Begusarai | Credit: Author
The setting of his election office, or the ‘war room’ as members of team Kanhaiya like to call it, is perhaps the only thing which gives an inkling of an ongoing election campaign. The house, in which Kanhaiya and his family lives is very simple, with a thatched roof and is very hard to distinguish from the neighbouring houses in his para, but for the red flag of CPI fluttering proudly in the wind which is flowing from the empty fields adjacent to the house. The ever-increasing number of people gathering outside the house, some to discuss and strategise on the election campaign, and many who come to meet their young netaji and role model and click a selfie with him, can easily pass on as those gathering for a family wedding or any other social occasion. In times of highly professionalised campaign machines, with event management type functions usually deployed by the BJP, Kanhaiya’s campaign team seems very organically arranged and grounded in nature.
It is only after entering the ‘war room’ that some semblance of an ongoing election campaign enters the sight. Pairs of walkie-talkies, four to five computers for number crunching on polling booth level data and a white board with a neatly written section of number of days to polling day, is enough to give you the election campaign feeling. However, the very fact that team Kanhaiya has only very scarce resources to gather and analyse booth wise polling data for almost two million voters (Begusarai is one of the largest electoral constituencies in Bihar and also Bihar’s largest revenue district) is indicative of the kind of resource crunch which Kanhaiya had to face while entering electoral politics. Money, or rather lack of it, is just one of the entry barriers that young politicians like Kanhaiya face when entering the electoral field without any family or political dynasty backing. Team Kanhaiya took to crowdfunding and were successful in raising about 70 lakh rupees, which is the maximum amount of money permitted to be used by any individual candidate as per the guidelines of the Election Commission.
Photo: Kanhaiya Kumar taking a photo with a voter | Credit: Author
Whatever Kanhaiya Kumar’s politics and election campaign lacks for in financial resources, it more than makes up for in terms of human resources. The support of people is also something Kanhaiya seems to draw his strength from. Beginning from almost 6 am in the morning, when he walks around different paras of his own village, Bihat, Kanhaiya does door to door canvassing in what his team calls, ‘morning walk prachar’. Back home by 8 am, he spends some time with family over breakfast, before meeting team members and greeting supporters. Leaving roughly by 11 am, Kanhaiya’s team hops across Assembly constituencies, covering several panchayats in a single day mixing election meetings, small sabhas and door to door canvassing depending on the penetration needed in each specific location. Campaign support in terms of human resources is not only coming from local CPI cadres and Kanhaiya’s friends and associates from JNU, but from across the country and across political parties.
Left parties in Bihar have decided to support Kanhaiya’s candidature in a rarely seen unified manner, since his victory is seen as the hope of revival of left politics in the Hindi heartland. Watan Kumar, a full-time student activist and Begusarai district functionary with AISA (All India Student’s Association) a student politics wing of CPI(ML) (Liberation), has been campaigning for Kanhaiya apart from campaigning for CPI(ML) (Liberation) candidates in Siwan and Ara. “AISA politics is different from All India Student Federation (AISF) (CPI’s student politics wing) and we are in opposition in College and University student politics, however for Kanhaiya Bhaiyya, we have all come together are campaigning in a united manner” he says. This is also surprising given the fact that CPI (ML) (Liberation) is in a state-wide alliance with RJD, which has also put up a candidate from Begusarai, Tanweer Hasan, essentially converting the bi-polar contest between Kanhaiya and BJP’s Giriraj Singh into a triangular contest. While left wing student politics and JNU has played an important role in shaping Kanhaiya’s politics, his appeal as an icon or symbol against the Hindu majoritarian right-wing BJP has unified students and activists from Universities across the country. Prominent among them are students from Aligarh Muslim University, who are also supposed to join his campaign team in the coming days. As an alumnus of AMU, Roomi Qazi, told me in Patna, “there is a strong wave in support of Kanhaiya and this has reached University students across India. I will be joining teams from AMU for campaigning in Begusarai soon. There are also teams coming from Allahabad University and Hyderabad. The momentum is quite strong among students all around the country.”
One of the key campaign members, in the early stages of his election campaign, when I was able to follow Kanhaiya’s campaign, is his friend and comrade at heart from Gujarat, the independent MLA and dalit leader, Jignesh Mevani. Mevani has been campaigning in Begusarai for Kanhaiya relentlessly and because of his association with other left parties like CPI (ML) (Liberation), has also been handling the co-ordination between different left parties to channelise a unified campaign machine in support of Kanhaiya. Jignesh stresses that Kanhaiya’s victory will not only be an important landmark for young and alternative voices in mainstream politics, something that he has been representing in Gujarat and at the national level so far, but it will also have further ramifications for the revival of Left. The counter-narrative also playing out in the constituency that Kanhaiya’s victory will also rebuild the bhumihar stronghold on left politics in Begusarai, where influential left leaders like Chandrashekar Singh, Sitaram Mishra and Rajendra Prasad Singh belonging to the bhumihar caste had successfully led land struggle against the land-owning bhumihar zamindars in the 1960s.
Rashtriya Janata Dal candidate, Tanweer Hasan, who is using the social justice platform to further his electoral campaign, seems to be the direct beneficiary of such kind of counter-narrative, as the threat of an upper caste contest between Kanhaiya and Giriraj Singh, both belonging to the bhumihar caste, can potentially polarise the Muslims along with backwards including Extremely Backward Classes and Yadavs in favour of RJD. Out of approximately two million voters in Begusarai, almost 20 % voters belong to the bhumihar caste, followed by about 15 % Muslims and 11 % Yadav voters. While BJP’s Bhola Singh had won 2014 Lok Sabha elections from Begusarai, Tanweer Hasan had managed to attract well above three lakh voters, given a strong M-Y mobilisation. Although Giriraj Singh’s candidature might damage the prospects of bhumihar votes in favour of Kanhaiya, it is his student politics past and ill-reputed and largely misrepresented labels of being an ‘anti-national’ from JNU, which might actually dissuade his appeal among the Upper caste. As Amarnath Jha from Saagi Panchayat told me, “Kanhaiya is young and we need young leaders in Politics. But he should not have said anti-national slogans and should not have supported “tukde-tukde” gang.”
Such statements make one realise the uphill battle that Kanhaiya and his team are facing to battle the false propaganda being circulated in the constituency by rival teams.
Acknowledging and more importantly understanding this ground reality that Upper caste voters might easily be swayed with the propaganda machine of BJP, Kanhaiya’s campaign focus is emphasising on a combination of ‘lal salaam’ and ‘jai bheem’. Jignesh Mevani and CPI (ML) (Liberation) are integral in carrying out this combined slogan on the ground. In fact, Jignesh’s campaign which focused on the only reserved assembly seat of Bakhri, out of the seven assembly seats in Begusarai is indicative of the prominent role he is playing in mobilising the dalit and backward class voters in support of Kanhaiya. Reaching out to Muslim voters, who are about 15 % in the constituency is also being done systematically through campaigns in Charia –Barirarpur and other assembly constituencies with large pockets of the Muslim population. In fact, the popularity that Kanhaiya is able to attract among Muslim youth is translating to a good campaign effect on the ground, as YouTube stars like Wali Rahmani are also moving across villages, passionately campaigning for Kanhaiya. Walking around in a Muslim dominated village in Charia-Bariarpur Assembly constituency, I found the recall value that such outreach has created for Kanhaiya Kumar’s name. Abdas Ahmed, a septuagenarian farmer told me that, “I have heard the name Kanhaiya, he is a student leader from Delhi. He speaks very well. If he goes to Delhi, he can raise voice for us and local needs in Delhi.”
While speaking to Kanhaiya, it becomes clear that his politics is attempting to bridge the divide between national level politics from Delhi and local level concerns emerging from the ground in Begusarai. “I try to take global concepts and translate that to local terminology and local examples so that it can be related to the local concerns. Something like an ongoing trend of privatisation of profit and socialisation of loss, which the BJP government is aggressively advocating for, has much graver impact for local problems like jobs and education. So, I try and explain that to people here in Begusarai, in their own style” Kanhaiya told me, while explaining his campaign style.
Whether the electorate from Begusarai will empower their local beta with a global sense and local understanding to represent them as a neta at the national level, is what remains to be seen in what will be one of the key electoral contests to watch out in 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
The research was conducted as part of the ICAS-MP project titled ‘Visual Diaries 2019’ headed by Prof. Srirupa Roy and Lalit Vachani, Goettingen University.
Second photo: Jignesh Mevani, Independent MLA from Gujarat, campaigning for Kanhaiya Kumar in Begusarai. Credit: Author
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Sarthak Bagchi is Assistant Professor at the School of Arts and Sciences, Ahmedabad University. He looks at elections and informal politics to see how politicians reach out to voters during and after election campaigns. His research interests include Indian politics, comparative politics and clientelistic politics.