Kanhaiya Kumar, the former president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students' Union, who is contesting the Lok Sabha election on the Communist Party of India ticket from Begusarai, has generated the sort of excitement that the Aam Aadmi Party did before the 2013 Delhi Assembly elections. Yet doubts regarding his victory persist, as was also true of AAP in 2013 " nobody had thought it could batter the Congress and snap at the Bharatiya Janata Party's heels to win 28 seats and poll around 29.48 percent of votes.
AAP generated excitement in 2013 because it could inspire voters to question their loyalty to established political parties. The party's very presence in the electoral arena triggered a conflict of emotions in Delhi's voters. This is precisely the role Kumar is playing in Begusarai.
Kumar and AAP of 2013 are ideologically apart, yet they are similar in their style of politics. From its inception in November 2012, AAP was disdainful of the political class, daringly hurling charges of corruption against the political class. The party struck a chord among the people because a slew of scams had rocked the United Progressive Alliance government then.
Kumar burst into the national limelight in 2016, through a spirited speech he delivered after his release from custody on the charge of sedition. He mocked Narendra Modi. Kumar elicited a nationwide response because the tide of intolerance had started to rise alarmingly from May 2014 onwards. His persistent criticism of Modi and Hindutva in public meetings and TV studios endeared him to those perturbed at the erosion of India's democratic ethos.
From this perspective, Kumar symbolises in 2019, as AAP did in 2013, not only the worries and anxieties of a large segment of India's population, but also the possibility of resolving them, of settling the churn in the moral universe, so to speak. Yet for this segment of voters, Kumar's presence in Begusarai's electoral arena poses a dilemma: Could their support for the new kid on the block help him to victory, or merely enable the party they consistently oppose to win Begusarai?
This was precisely the worry of Delhiites, who were impressed by AAP. Yet they wondered whether their support for AAP could fracture the Congress base and enable the BJP to capture power. Likewise, BJP voters were confused about backing AAP lest it facilitated a Congress victory. This dilemma was arguably the most significant reason why AAP fell short of the majority-mark in the Delhi Assembly " by eight seats.
Delhi's dilemma of 2013 is now Begusarai's.
In 2014, Rashtriya Janata Dal's Tanveer Hassan lost to the BJP's Bhola Singh by a little over 58,000 votes. The CPI's Rajendra Prasad Singh bagged 1.92 lakh votes. Those who don't traditionally vote for the CPI will likely think that by voting for Kumar they might facilitate the victory of either Union minister Giriraj Singh, who is the BJP's candidate in Begusarai, or Hassan, whom the RJD has fielded again.
Voters are always faced with a challenge whether they should back a candidate of their caste or religion or support one on the basis of his or her party's agenda. The final choice is often a mix of both. At times, though, a rational argument is invoked to justify caste and religious affinities.
In Begusarai, there are around 4 lakh Bhumihars, 2.5 lakh Muslims, 1.5 lakh Yadavs, 1.5 lakhs Kushwahas, around 3 lakhs of groups comprising Extremely Backward Castes, 1.5-2 lakh Dalits, 1 lakh Brahmins, and around 75,000 Rajputs, among others.
Kumar has not harped on his Bhumihar identity, but it has not dissuaded his caste brethrens from appropriating him. In 2013, AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal did not highlight his Bania identity, but his caste in Delhi took immense pride in his rise. Likewise, Begusarai's Bhumihars bask in Kumar's glory, the rebel's courage he displays. Kumar could have been the natural choice of Bhumihars but for the presence of Giriraj Singh, who is also a Bhumihar.
Singh and Kumar represent different sensibilities and possibilities. A Union minister, Singh represents success in the present. At 67 years, though, he does not symbolise the future as Kumar, who is 32, does. Singh is an unabashed votary of Hindutva. By contrast, Kumar harps on India's pluralistic culture. Kumar will be the choice for Bhumihars aligned with the CPI and the dwindling stock of those among the caste opposed to Hindutva politics. Singh will be a compelling argument for Bhumihars who root for the BJP.
But the choice of Bhumihars gets complicated because they are classified into three groups on the basis of the place from where they migrated to Begusarai. Three subgroups dominate " Jalebar, Chakbar and Dighbia. Kumar is a Jalebar and Singh a Dighbia. The degree of affinity for Kumar is expected to be higher among the Jalebars than it would be among the Dighbias.
The significance of these subgroups in electoral politics was pointed out by Sanjay Kumar Pandey, professor of economics, College of Commerce, Patna: "Begusarai's Ram Jeevan Singh, who was elected to the Lok Sabha twice and was a minister in Bihar, did not rise to even a greater prominence because he was a Jalebar and could not get the support of other subgroups."
It remains a delicious thought whether Kumar's national prominence can bridge the divide among the Bhumihar subgroups. Yet they will also have to countenance that peculiar dilemma: Could their vote for Kumar only end up helping the RJD's Hassan to win? This question assumes significance because the hegemony of Bhumihars in Begusarai is challenged by the RJD's backward caste supporters, not to forget Hindutva followers among the former wanting to deny victory to a Muslim.
Kumar also poses an ideological challenge to Muslims, who are traditionally inclined to the RJD, not least because its incarcerated leader, Lalu Prasad Yadav, rooted out, to a great degree, the menace of communal riots, from which they suffered most. Yet Kumar is an attraction to Muslims because of his spectacular opposition to Modi and the BJP.
Begusarai's Muslims are likely to think that Kumar would be more effective in representing them in the Lok Sabha than Hassan, who is likely to be dwarfed by the more famous of RJD leaders. There is also the CPI's role in opposing Hindutva. During last year's Ram Navami celebrations, when Hindutva footsoldiers sought to provoke Muslims in Baro and Ninga villages, CPI cadres countered them with that forgotten slogan, "Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Isai, aapas mein sab bhai bhai " Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians are brothers."
Kumar's emphasis on education and jobs privileges the politics of interests over that of identity, which is always disadvantageous to Muslims as they are a numerical minority. Yet their traditional political loyalty will have them wonder: What if their support to Kumar fails to propel him to victory and the BJP takes Begusarai? Should they desert a Muslim candidate in a context in which political parties are reluctant to field community members?
Social groups in the categories of the Other Backward Classes and the Scheduled Castes will likely suspect Kumar's Bhumihar identity, as did Delhi's Dalits about the upper caste background of AAP leaders in 2013. They might perceive Kumar as the Trojan Horse of the Bhumihars, even though he often invokes Dr BR Ambedkar in his speeches and interviews. He seeks to convey to OBCs and Dalits that his politics too focuses on caste inequalities.
There is also the factor of Kumar having pitchforked Begusarai into the national limelight " a fact its residents have appreciatively iterated in just about every media report. It could well kick in the Hawthorne effect, a theoretical postulate which asserts that people alter their behaviour when they are aware of being observed. The nation is, indeed closely monitoring Begusarai, about which its residents should be acutely conscious of because of the media coverage.
Kumar desperately needs the Hawthorne effect " the CPI was 2.35 lakh votes and 1.77 lakh votes behind the BJP and RJD, respectively. These leads are too huge to overcome in just one election. Kumar should draw confidence from the AAP's victory of 2013 " it polled 29.9 percent of votes on its debut. Kumar has at least the CPI's base of 1.92 lakhs to build upon.
True, class, not caste, is the principal driver of Delhi's politics.
Yet Begusarai, in some ways, is uniquely different from most constituencies in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. For instance, NOTA, or None of the Above, bagged a whopping 26,622 votes, or 2.5 percent of the total 10,77,365 votes cast in the 2014 election, which also saw two Independent candidates together bag 23,287 votes. These figures suggest that Begusarai is politically aware and that nearly five percent of its voters do not base their voting decisions on the popular perception of who is likely to win or lose.
There is also Begusarai's past to reckon with. In the 1970s and 1980s, the CPI and the Congress fought bloody battles to control Begusarai. These clashes were largely a consequence of the CPI's Bhumihar leadership, with the support of backward caste groups, challenging the Bhumihar feudal landlords. A hundred people died in Kumar's village of Bihat alone, which earned it the sobriquet of a "village of political widows", as this report bears out.
Delhi dramatically broke away from old patterns of political behaviour in 2013. It is now Begusarai's turn to dare. Kanhaiya Kumar has every reason to hope he could do in Begusarai what AAP did in Delhi in 2013.