Student politics doesn’t have the most enticing of reputations – not just in India, but more or less everywhere. It’s often a mix of idealism and shrill inexperience, with the decibel level drowning out everything else.
So when a student political leader is streamed live on TV across the nation for fully three-quarters-of-an-hour, and trends on social media not just in India but well beyond, then you know something remarkable is stirring.
“Can’t remember the last time a speech by a youth leader (or a communist!) got so much attention” – tweeted TV anchor Vikram Chandra.
Neither can I!
“Cometh the hour, cometh the man,” the old adage goes. And Kanhaiya Kumar has certainly lived up to the moment.
Of course, the newly-bailed JNU student leader had a lot going for him. A freshly-minted hero returning to his home patch with an elated and enthusiastic late night audience, and thanks to events of the last couple of weeks, with the sort of name recognition that even some cabinet ministers can only dream about.
It was, of course, a victory speech, delivered with just a touch of swagger. Much of India may have been astonished about the way in which the JNU controversy has rolled out – for much of the world, this has fed a narrative about an increasingly illiberal and intolerant strain within India’s public life.
But Kanhaiya Kumar’s oratory was remarkable – spell-binding, warm-hearted, engaging. He was confident and composed, much more so than anyone has a right to expect from someone released just hours earlier from Tihar Jail. The speech wasn’t sour or vengeful, but inspiring and amusing – the students pressed all around him laughed and cheered much more than they chanted in anger.
The oratory also had passion and restraint, flights of political rhetoric and calmer passages. Wherever Kanhaiya Kumar learnt how to address a crowd, he learnt it well. In some ways, it’s a tribute to Indian public life – where the mass meeting, and the speaking skills required, has retained a role lost in many other democracies.
The BBC and indeed much of the news media have described Kanhaiya’s Kumar’s speech as “fiery”. That doesn’t do it justice. This wasn’t an angry tirade; there was no call to the barricades; it wasn’t simply a recitation of leftist dogma. Kumar delivered a polished piece of oratory – the more remarkable for being delivered off-the-cuff – which has succeeded in its key political goal. The tables have been turned spectacularly – the winds is in the sails of the JNU students and their allies, and it’s the government and the police that are now on the ropes.
The students’ union leader also succeeded in reclaiming the word azaadi (freedom) – the politically-charged term at the heart of the whole JNU drama – for the range of issues of social justice and political inclusion on which the left campaign.
Not freedom from India, but freedom in India – he declared. That’s quite a slogan!
Most of those who took to social media overseas were, I imagine, young, progressive, ex-pat Indians relishing that one of their own (perhaps more in generation than political sympathies) was achieving such acclaim.
It brought to mind the great young radical orators of a previous era – Angela Davis, Tariq Ali, Daniel Cohn-Bendit. And that points to the most pressing problem for Kanhaiya Kumar and his political allies.
Having caught the attention of the nation, and caught the mood of many of India’s educated young: what next?
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