Kanhaiya Kumar In Begusarai: Old Fault Lines and New Struggles for Radical Political Change

Shray Mehta (shray06@gmail.com) is a research scholar at South Asian University, New Delhi.
22 May 2019

The need to confront and defeat the authoritarian tendencies of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the neo-liberal state has become ever more pressing. What are the issues when this challenge is to be met by contesting democratic elections? A month-long ethnographic study of Kanhaiya Kumar's campaign in Begusarai, Bihar speculates on its implications for progressive politics.

The context of the 2019 general elections in India has had three critical components. There is the ever-increasing inequality in neo-liberal India, a deepening of the agrarian crisis, and an increase in the hold of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), both ideologically and politically. Though there has been a strengthening of peasant movements and Dalit assertions to face the onslaught of the RSS (Wire 2016, 2019), it has not been clear how this would translate into electoral victories. Scholars have pointed out that India is moving towards an ethnic majoritarian state (Jaffrelot 2019) and that there is a need for articulating a radical democratic change on the issues of land and labour (Nilsen 2019). 

This article attempts to provide a comment on how such dynamics play out in the field of electoral politics through a case study of Begusarai constituency during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Even though Kanhaiya Kumar emerged as a new face of progressive politics in the region, several commentators have cast aspersions on the inability of such a politics to address issues related to caste.

Based on month-long ethnographic fieldwork in Begusarai constituency before the elections, the article follows Kumar’s election campaign closely through conversations with party cadre, local leaders, campaigners, and voters. Campaign materials of the candidates along with social media and local newspaper reports have also been used. By focusing on oral narratives and histories that are evoked to support or oppose the candidates, this article will locate how much of the narrative of progressive politics relies on caste and kinship and if these present limitations for the campaign’s ability to transcend them. Most importantly, how do these factors get translated into an election that gets hyper-localised in its agenda? The article speculates on what factors may have led to a swing of the voters and more importantly the split of votes with the Bhumihars and Muslims, away from both the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD).  

“Hum CPI Kartey Hain” (We Do CPI Politics)

There is a dilapidated building in Gauna village in Begusarai district. It has a small courtyard with six rooms, overgrown with vegetation. Until three years ago, the building was a fully functioning school run by Vimal Singh, a trade unionist belonging to the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) and the Communist Party of India (CPI). Now, at night, it serves as a makeshift bar for some of the Bhumihar men in the village. The school had run successfully for almost a decade before the Bhumihars of the village got irked by the success of the Dalit students and Bhumihar men started consuming alcohol in the school premises. One day, one of the students from the Paswan community intervened to stop them. He was shot dead and the school was shut thereafter.[1] 

Vimal Singh, himself a Bhumihar, could do nothing to save the life of his student or the school itself. His family have been members of the communist party since its inception. This story of the presence of a Bhumihar trade union activist at the level of a village, the establishment of a school where there was none, and the subsequent murder of a Dalit student to prevent them from getting an education is a window into the complex history of politics and political violence in Begusarai.

When Kanhaiya Kumar declared his intention to contest from the Begusarai seat in Bihar, mainstream media quickly discovered the town’s history explaining why Begusarai is called the Leningrad of Bihar (Begg 2019). The appearance of Begusarai on the map of national politics is, however, not new. As Vimal Singh points out, “AITUC had won the trade union elections at the Thermal Plant in Begusarai for more than 50 years. However, the BJP-aligned Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh managed to win the election in 2015. National newspapers called it the storming of the Red Bastion in Begusarai.” He continues, “But, we won it back the next year. It became a prestige battle for us.” A senior comrade at a public meeting of intellectuals organised by the Progressive Writers Association, Begusarai pointed out, 

“There used to be a time when the Communist Party did not have even a single MP or MLA. Then there was a time when we had many. And now again we have none. But we are a party of sangharsh [mass struggle], not elections and can win seats again if we organise.”

The town of Begusarai is a kind of memorial to this sangharsh. In the town area, one can see several duars (entry points) of bastis and residential areas paying homage to the shaheed (martyrs) of the party. There are around 150 such duars and the sheer number points to the long history of struggle and contestations that the cadre of the party on the ground has participated in. In Begusarai, communism seems to be a part of common sense about politics. As Kanhaiya Kumar’s grandfather pointed out, “We are communists not because of Das Capital, but because of the struggles of the ones before us.” One sees this also in the way of introducing oneself and one’s political leaning by saying, “Hum CPI kartey hain” [We do CPI politics] rather than saying “Hum CPI ke member hain” [We are part of CPI]. 

‘Ek Jaat Aur Ek District ki Party’ (The Party of One Caste with Influence in One District)

The other side story of the presence of the CPI in Begusarai is the association of the party with the Bhumihar caste. This point was raised by Tejashwi Yadav, leader of the RJD, most vociferously during the election. He pointed out time and again how the CPI is “Ek jaat aur ek district ki Party.” He also pointed out that all the leadership of the party belonged to this one caste and that the party has never allowed people belonging to other castes rise in the rank. 

The reality of the Bhumihar connection and the CPI is more complex. Begusarai has the distinction of producing the RSS ideologue Rakesh Sinha. In spite of the memorialisation of the sangharsh of the CPI in Begusarai town, it is actually the RSS and the BJP that are expected to do well in the urban areas. In Begusarai, it is the RSS, and by implication the BJP, which is the party of the Bhumihars. The effect of this connection of Bhumihars with the RSS became obvious in two ways with respect to Kumar. 

The first was that the most resistance that Kumar received was from the Bhumihar caste. This was visible in the instances where he had to face violent protests both as an individual and as a candidate of the communist party. These instances began from October 2018 onwards (Tewary 2018) when he was attacked upon entering the Bhagwanpur which, incidentally, was historically the first place in Begusarai where the RSS had set up its shakha. These instances continued and all the three instances of violent confrontations during the rest of the campaign happened in areas that are Bhumihar strongholds. 

The other is the complex way in which kinship has intersected with party politics in Begusarai. Kanhaiya Kumar could count on very limited support from Bhumihars. As an activist in the CPI cadre explained, “Bhumihar ki do jaat hoti hai. Ek woh jo Kanhaiya ke saath hai, aur dusara woh jo Giriraj Singh ke saath hai” (Bhumihars have two castes in Begusarai. One of them is with Kanhaiya and the other is with Giriraj Singh). There are two clans that make up the Bhumihars in the region and these are divided on the basis of different gotras: Jalewaar and Chakwar. Kanhaiya Kumar belongs to the former. The only support that he could expect on the basis of kinship was from his own clan, but that too in a limited way. Several traders in the Begusarai town pointed out that Kanhaiya Kumar could not count on more that 30% of the share of the total votes from the Bhumihars. Thus, caste and kinship, in this case, were not going to translate into support for Kumar. It is in this sense that the election became a hyper-localised one. Even though at the national level there has been a David versus Goliath narrative for the election, at the ground level, the histories of violence, kinship, and people’s movements have played out.  

“‘Tukde Tukde Gang’, the ‘Vote Katua Party’ and the Spectacle on Social Media

Elections have increasingly become a part of a “spectacle” where different social media platforms add to the existing political mobilisation and opinion formation. While social media was first utilised in 2004 (Kumar 2004), in 2019, it has reached a pitch where there seems to be a feedback loop between news media, cinema, and politics. Movies on current political events or personalities, such as Uri: The Surgical Strike, Buddha in a Traffic Jam, The Accidental Prime Minister, and PM Narendra Modi, have been made at an alarming speed. Dialogues from films (for instance, “How’s the Josh” from Uri) have been used at political rallies. Kumar has also figured in this feedback loop. His naara (slogan/call) for azadi became the rallying cry for the unemployed working-class Muslim youth from Dharavi in the film Gully Boy

At the regional level, however, this spectacle is usually curated with the local electorate in mind. This was visible after the nomination rally of Kumar. The 5 kilometre-long rally organised in support of Kumar was perhaps one of the biggest political rallies in Begusarai in many years. This was a turning point for the campaign where it became obvious that Kumar had support beyond the communist cadres and the communist party. This was also the time that the election machinery of the RSS became active. 

Trolling as a political strategy on social media is well established (Chaturvedi 2016). However, what is hidden is how the foot soldiers of the RSS utilise this at the organisational level. One of the wings of the RSS that specialises in this is the Association of Billion Minds, a team that is deployed at the ground level in different constituencies to form and circulate social media content and distribute it at the level of families. They create propaganda at the level of specific seats and cater to the political debates for those seats. 

The team in Begusarai took a one-point approach to counter the campaign of Kumar and focused on localising the “anti-national” narrative on Kumar and the CPI. This was achieved by promoting a photograph of a person at Kumar’s rally with a gun in his hand. Titled “Aagaya CPI Begusarai ko phirse rakt ranjit karney” [The CPI is back to drench Begusarai in blood once again], the Facebook post quickly caught the attention of the state and the media (Image 1). The news was also carried prominently by Aaj Tak and other television news channels. This was an attempt to point to the bloody history of confrontations of caste armies and the communist cadres who had picked up arms and dissociated themselves from democratic processes in the 1980s. The blame for this violence was put entirely on the “red flag” and by implication on the communists. This narrative was also easy to feed into the larger narrative of the “tukde tukde gang” and the “urban naxals” who want to fracture the nation and stage a violent overthrowing of Indian democracy and the Indian state. 

Image 1: Photograph circulated on social media.

The picture was forwarded to the Election Commission and the man in the picture was arrested on the evening of the rally by the police. As it turned out, the picture was not fake. However, the man had a disability and was carrying not a gun, but his own crutches which seemed like a rifle due to the angle at which the picture was taken. This was confirmed by Rahul Kumar, the district magistrate of Begusarai, on his personal Twitter handle. He also circulated the photo of the person in question with the crutches and explained the situation (see embedded tweet below). The history of violent confrontations between caste armies and the communist cadres (with the RSS focusing on the latter) was utilised as a narrative till the end of the campaign and altered pictures of Kumar’s rallies with photos of Afzal Guru were circulated.  

People in villages said that communal tensions had been simmering since 2018 when a masjid in Tegraha district was attacked by Bhumihars associated with the RSS and a saffron flag was planted on top of it. The incident went unreported in the press and people suggested that candidates from other parties like the RJD also did not intervene to prevent the situation from turning violent. Tanveer Hassan’s inaction in the face of the communalism of the RSS was being discussed both among the people in Begusarai town as well as the CPI cadre as one of the factors that could lead to declining support for him from the Pasmanda Muslims as well.  In this process, the Muslim support for Kumar seemed likely to increase not just because of his appeal but because of the perceived inability of the RJD to confront the communal politics of the BJP (Vatsa 2019). This, however, led to the CPI being branded as a “vote katua” party (party that divides the votes) by the RJD leaders.

The narrative of violence has another dimension to it. The scenes of violence erupting at the Kanhaiya Kumar’s campaign were portrayed by the national media as hooliganism of the communist party cadre. The first instance of this was when his convoy was interrupted by people questioning his stance on nationalism. They claimed to be supporters of no party and said they would vote for NOTA. In a later instance, people interrupted the campaigning with black flags and fights broke out. The reactions on the ground were different. However, what remains to be seen is how these confrontations add up to the larger picture of the electoral contest in Begusarai. 

The Dalits and the Left

An important part of Kumar’s campaign was the attempt to get Dalit votes for the CPI. This vote bank is thought to have shifted away from the CPI in Bihar due to the presence of leaders like Lalu Prasad Yadav, Ram Vilas Paswan, and Nitish Kumar. An explanation for this, within the party intellectuals, is that this has happened due to what is called the identity and caste politics of these leaders. They associate this kind of politics of social empowerment and social justice with an attempt to control the state in order to enrich one’s own kin. As an All India Students' Federation (AISF) activist pointed out in a meeting of Progressive Writers Association, 

“Jab Ram Vilas Paswan ji ne sangharsh shuru kiya toh wok kehatey the ki ‘Main us ghar mein diya jalaney chala hoon jahaan kabhi ujala hua hi nahi hai.’ Diya to jalaya nahi lekin aapne bete ka naam ‘chirag’ rakh diya aur usko hero bhi bana diya aur MP bhi. Ram Vilas Paswan ji gaon mein diya jalane chaley the lekin aapne ghar mein hi transformer laga liya.”

[When Ram Vilas Paswan started the struggle, he would say, ‘I’m going to light a lamp in the household which have never seen light.’ He didn’t light the lamp, but he did name his son ‘Chirag’ (lamp), made him a film hero and also a member of parliament. Ram Vilas Paswan set out to light up the village, but instead equipped his own home with a transformer.]

For Dalits within the CPI, the conditions are more complex. One sees this in two forms. The first is the existence of Dalit activists and intellectuals who continue to be associated with the CPI even though they are not able to win seats because most people from their caste vote for other parties who promise politics of social empowerment. For instance, the CPI aanchal pramukh of Khusmahaut is R K Paswan, who is well known in the area. He lives in a humble one-room house with a small piece of land. He has been offered money on several occasions to shift his Paswan caste votes to other parties, but has refused this on all occasions. As he says, “We communists cannot compromise on ideology.” 

Secondly, in spite of their ideological commitment, young Dalit activists of the party are not able to convert their activism on the ground into votes. At a public meeting addressed by Gujarat legislator Jignesh Mevani in April 2019 in Khushmahaut, the complexity of the relationship between the left and the Dalits came to the fore. While introducing the area and its problems, a local CPI leader pointed to the long struggles of the left and said that the development in the area has been due to the communists. The road connecting Chandpura to the national highway was made when Rajinder Prasad Singh was the Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA). It was also at that time that 600 families were given rights over land. However, mechanisation of agriculture caused the problem of labour. The CPI leaders pointed out that the people of the village were rendered unemployed even in the harvest season and had to migrate for work. In response to this Prakash Paswan, an Ambedkarite with left leanings, pointed out that, “The problem is not land. There are thousands of acres of land under the control of landlords. However, there is no education for the Dalits. There are no health services. To ensure social justice you need not keep on harping on the problems of land and landlords.” Instead, he argued that the need was to focus on the question of social dignity. “If there was no Ambedkar, there would not have been a Ram Vilas Paswan or Lalu Yadav,” he pointed out. 

However, there was no response from the CPI old guard on how this politics of social justice was to be actualised and how the leaders could be held accountable. Towards the end of the meeting, there was a competitive raising of slogans. While the Ambedkarites in the meeting were keen on “Jai Bhim, Laal Salaam,” the old guard of the party seemed reluctant to participate in the same. 

The Challenge for Understanding Democratic Change

The issue is clearly not just one of land and land reform. The question is also of social dignity and how to include the issues of social justice within the fold of progressive politics in a place where there are others like the RJD who have articulated it with political success, while the CPI is struggling even to mobilise people around the question of land. On the other hand, one needs to ask why the question of social justice is being raised again in Bihar even though Lalu Prasad Yadav has been a champion of the same. Recent anthropological work has shown that the success of the politics of social welfare in Bihar has been unable to effect redistributive justice (Witsoe 2013). 
The constraints that candidates with progressive politics face when they are pitted against others in elections is something to be explored. Here, they confront not just the might of organised cadre of the likes of the RSS, but also the histories of their own political parties. The local electorate is often well versed with these histories and even if it seemed willing to support a candidate like Kumar for one term, it may not be willing to do so in the next elections. Then the challenge for understanding democratic change is to explore how and why social angst and social movements translate into electoral victories and what are the ways in which the narrative of social justice can be further deepened by combining it with redistributive justice.

The author would like to thank Ravi Kumar from South Asian University for his comments on the initial draft of this article, Nafis Jilani and Zoony Zainab for their inputs, and the respondents from the field.

Shray Mehta (shray06@gmail.com) is a research scholar at South Asian University, New Delhi.
22 May 2019