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Published On : 05 Mar 2016

New Delhi, (The Hindu): The crowd behind Kanhaiya Kumar hissed. At his first-ever media conference this afternoon, the student leader was being asked the question that had for the past one month turned their lives upside down.

"Do you oppose Afzal Guru's execution?" a reporter asked, referring to the Parliament attack convict who was hanged and the commemoration of whose execution became the lightning rod for the government crackdown on the JNU campus.

Calming his friends, Kanhaiya said: " Neta nahin hoon, sawal se nahin bhagoonga. Aage ja kar teacher banna hai (I am not a politician, so I won't run from questions. I will be a teacher in future, so I can't escape questions)."

Kanhaiya posed a counter-question: "Who is Afzal? He was a citizen of this country and a resident of J&K. The law that punished him gives us the right to ask questions."

In the same breath, Kanhaiya added: "Afzal mera icon nahin hai. Mera icon hai Rohith Vemula. Kitne Rohith maroge, har ghar se Rohith niklega (Afzal is not my icon. My icon is Rohith Vemula. How many Rohiths will you kill, every home will produce a Rohith)."

Neta nahin hoon, sawal se nahin bhagoonga.

Less than 24 hours earlier, while delivering a speech that held the campus and drawing rooms elsewhere spellbound and became the talk of the town, Kanhaiya had already displayed this streak of not running away.

He did not shy away from addressing the biggest criticism against the students - that they were insulting the armed forces who are risking their lives on the borders. Kanhaiya had pointed out: "The soldier is the son of the farmer who toils in the fields. What are you doing for the farmer? The soldier is my brother and the farmer is my father."

Neta nahin hoon, sawal se nahin bhagoonga.

Similar moments today came more than once. He was asked about a condition in the high court bail order "to make all efforts within his power to control anti-national activities on the campus".

Kanhaiya said that although he did not think it was wrong to talk about it, he felt like an "idiot" these past few days. " Main kuchh idiot ban gaya hoon in dino. Mujhe yaad hai 3 Idiots ka scene, jahan Aamir Khan paida hone wale bachche ko kehta hai, 'andar hi rahe'. Mera bhi haal wahi hai (I feel like an idiot these days. Looking at my situation, I am reminded of the sequence where Aamir Khan in 3 Idiots tells an unborn child that it's better to stay inside the womb)."

Neta nahin hoon, sawal se nahin bhagoonga.

Predicting where Kanhaiya's journey will take him - to a classroom to field questions or to the political arena where the norm is to scoot from questions - is a risky business.

Far less hazardous is a suggestion that the diminutive doctoral student with the disclaimer " neta nahin hoon" has already soared high over the Indian political establishment.

What Kanhaiya has managed is to peel the layers of banalities crafted by the Narendra Modi government on ultra-nationalism, soldiers, farmers, Dalits and academic freedom.

This is what the non-BJP political establishment, particularly the Congress brand of opposition to Modi, has been trying to do for the past two years. However, other than disrupting Parliament and blocking legislation, the Congress has not been able to achieve much. If the Modi government finds itself on the ropes today, there is little to suggest that the Congress has emerged as a viable alternative.

When a man was killed on unfounded suspicion of eating beef, it was not the Nehru-Gandhis - the Congress was tentative in its response initially, probably fearing a majority backlash - but another Nehru descendant who made it into an issue. The return of an award by Nayantara Sahgal, the author and niece of Jawaharlal Nehru, had opened the floodgates on what Arun Jaitley later described as a "manufactured revolt".

Kanhaiya has stepped into this Opposition vacuum, with " azadi" and "lal salaam (red salute)" on his lips and with a sledge-hammer question: " Kaisa desh hoga, jis desh ke log hi nahin honge (what kind of country will this be without its people)?"

The context was sedition charges being brought against anyone who criticises the government. The law invoked may differ but not many parties, not even the Congress, can claim that they smell of roses when it comes to protecting personal liberties.

Kanhaiya is by no means an outsider - like Arvind Kejriwal - to the political system although he insists he wants to be a teacher . He is a member of the AISF, the student wing of the CPI that has been part of parliamentary democracy for long.

The "official" Opposition does not agree it has been overshadowed by Kanhaiya.

Congress leader Sachin Pilot said: "Kanhaiya gave a passionate speech. Don't forget, the issue came into the national discourse when the Congress stood up for the students brutalised by the police. Rahul Gandhi went to JNU, put political capital in the issue and gave the students a national platform."

An element of "we too have done so" is also at play. "He has showed what Left activism is about. In our time, we too spoke like this at JNU, except there was no direct telecast," said CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury, underscoring how times have changed.

Kanhaiya has also done something that was unthinkable a year ago. For the time being, the student appears to have rendered speechless Narendra Modi, the Great Communicator who hogged the airwaves and towered over political pulpits pouring fire and brimstone on opponents in the summer of 2014.

The Prime Minister has so far completely avoided the "toxic" topic called Kanhaiya although he had multiple occasions to speak up, leaving it to his HRD minister to describe young citizens keen to engage with the system as "children".

The HRD minister appeared to have forgotten the adage that the child is the father of the man.

The government now needs to learn how it will respond to a "child" that reminds the most powerful man in the land that when the Prime Minister spoke of Stalin and Khrushchev in the Lok Sabha yesterday, he should have also talked about Hitler. After having charged him with sedition, which law will be invoked now?

Unlike the partially-in-denial Opposition, the BJP privately acknowledges Kanhaiya's damage potential for Modi. "He made the leader look small," a Lok Sabha MP from a northern state said. But he added that without the reinforcement of a "mainline" party, Kanhaiya may end up as a "lone ranger".

A Modi sympathiser went so far as to suggest that the Prime Minister spend his next Diwali on a campus and "re-connect" with the youths who swore by him not so long ago.

For those who dismiss the young as "children" - on all sides of the political divide - perhaps the adage "the child is the father of the man" will come in handy.

The ultimate outsider who once gave the political establishment a bloody nose is already learning from Kanhaiya. Kejriwal, the anti-corruption crusader who became the Delhi chief minister, tweeted today: "We demand ' azadi' from the LG's (Delhi lieutenant governor's) interference, from the Centre, from political arrogance."

Photo credit: The Hindu

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