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The Congress has secured two high-profile connections in former Jawaharlal Nehru University Students' Union (JNUSU) President Kanhaiya Kumar who was till now with the Communist Party of India (CPI), and Jignesh Mevani, who is an Independent MLA from Gujarat's Vadgam.
Former Communist Party of India (CPI) leader Kanhaiya Kumar on Tuesday, 28 September, joined the Congress party, in the presence of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi.
Meanwhile, Jignesh Mevani, an independent MLA from Gujarat, lent support to the party, as he could not formally join owing to "technical reasons".
There's no doubt that Mevani and Kumar are both important young voices, known for their opposition to right-wing politics. A key role in Kumar's induction is said to have been played by Prashant Kishor who met the former JNUSU president at the residence of former JD(U) leader Pavan Verma.
It is quite likely that Mevani and Kumar would be a part of the Congress' campaign in the upcoming elections in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa, and Manipur. Mevani has even gone on to say that while he has not formally joined because he is an independent MLA, he will fight the upcoming Gujarat Assembly elections on Congress symbol.
But what will be the political impact of their entry?
This needs to be broken down into three parts:
How much does Congress gain in their areas of influence?
What does Congress seek to gain nationally?
What do these two leaders gain?
What Does Congress Gain in Their Areas of Influence?
Jignesh Mevani presently represents the Vadgam constituency in Banaskantha district in North Gujarat. He had won the seat with the support of the Congress in the 2017 Assembly elections.
This was a reasonably strong seat for the Congress in the Assembly elections but the party supported Mevani here in return for his backing in rest of the state. Mevani had led a number of protests by Dalits following the Una incident of 2016. He has also been fighting for land rights for Dalits in Gujarat.
The Congress secured 53 percent of the Dalit votes in the 2017 Gujarat Assembly elections, according to Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) data. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, this increased to 67 percent in Gujarat. This happened even as the party lost ground among the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), Upper Castes and Adivasis between the two elections.
Mevani's seat, Vadgam, is one among just nine Assembly segments out of 182 in which the Congress had a lead in Gujarat in the Lok Sabha elections.
While one can't say whether the Congress' increase in support among Dalits in Gujarat is due to Mevani or the fact that the party has been traditionally strong in this section, it does seem that the Congress did gain due to Mevani to an extent.
However, there are limits to Mevani's national appeal. He isn't very widely known outside of Gujarat. And even within Dalit activists, Mevani is seen as a leftist and not entirely acceptable to Ambedkarites.
Kanhaiya Kumar, a Bhumihar from a loyal CPI family in Bihar's Begusarai, had contested the Lok Sabha elections from Begusarai on a CPI ticket but lost to Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)'s Giriraj Singh by a large margin. However, he did come ahead of the Rashtriya Janata Dal-Congress candidate.
Since then, he addressed a number of rallies during the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) protests in Bihar but kept a relatively low profile during the Bihar election campaign.
Unlike Mevani, whose politics is in consonance with an increasing aversion among Gujarat's Dalits towards the BJP, Kumar's community – Bhumihars – are staunch BJP supporters and traditionally hostile towards the RJD.
Even Kumar's own seat – Begusarai – is part of the RJD's quota within the United Progressive Alliance.
Therefore, if the Congress, some time in future, decides to go it alone in Bihar and reclaim its Upper Caste base, Kanhaiya's presence may be of some use.
But until then, his success or failure in Begusarai would largely be dependent on the nature of anti-NDA alliances and not so much his own popularity.
How Much Does the Congress Gain Nationally?
Here, again, there needs to be a realistic assessment and the importance of these two leaders should neither be overestimated, nor dismissed.
There is one aspect where the entry of these two leaders would greatly help the Congress – in the party's tussle within the Opposition space.
Mevani and Kumar are both articulate voices who speak strongly against the Hindutva ideology. Therefore, at a time when many parties, such as Trinamool Congress, All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, and Samajwadi Party, are questioning Congress' ability in fighting right wing forces, these two leaders may prove useful.
Especially among younger anti-BJP voters, they may be able to help send the message that "the Congress is the main anti-BJP force in the country".
There's another angle to this. Within the Congress, they would strengthen the centre-left strand represented by Rahul Gandhi, against many of the old-guard leaders who suggest a more conservative approach.
However, there's another kind of voter among whom the presence of Mevani and Kumar may not be of much use.
To come back to power nationally, the Congress would need to win over a sizeable number of voters who have voted for the BJP in 2014 and 2019.
Mevani and Kumar may not be the best faces to put forward among this section of voters.
Jignesh Mevani and Kanhaiya Kumar may help Congress consolidate those who are already against the BJP but it is unlikely that they would help woo people who voted for the BJP.
For their politics to be acceptable, a broader ideological shift is needed on the ground which may happen only through a social movement.
For instance, a young voter who may be upset with the BJP due to its failures on the economic front but still supports it on the matters of national security, isn't likely to change his vote due to Mevani and Kumar.
So the danger with Mevani and Kumar is that they may help Congress preach to the converted and maintain its hold among voters who were already against BJP, they may not be very helpful as far as floating voters are concerned.
What Do Mevani and Kumar Gain?
Jignesh Mevani, for one, gains a chance of getting re-elected from Vadgam in the 2022 Assembly polls in Gujarat. Had he not lent support to the party, Congress may have been tempted to field its own candidate there. Now Mevani may have secured his renomination in addition to the advantage of the Congress symbol.
Connecting with the Congress also gives him a larger platform for his politics centred around land rights for Dalits and against atrocities.
The same goes for Kanhaiya Kumar.
He isn't the first left JNU students leader to join the Congress and he won't be the last. DP Tripathi (president from 1975-77) joined the Congress and subsequently the Nationalist Congress Party. He was from the Students' Federation of India (SFI).
Shakeel Ahmed Khan, who was with the SFI and president in 1992-93, joined the Congress some years later and became an MLA in Bihar.
Batti Lal Bairwa, president from 1996-98 and also with SFI, joined the Congress later and became chairman of its SC/ST/OBC Youth Cell.
Syed Naseer Hussain of SFI, president from 1999-2000, is now a Rajya Sabha MP from the Congress.
Then, 2007-08 JNUSU president Sandeep Singh and 2017-18 president Mohit Pandey are both associated with the Congress presently and work closely with Priyanka Gandhi and the UP unit.
In the past and present, several left-leaning student union leaders have thought of Congress as the most viable mechanism for their politics at the national level. This may partly also be due to less space for growth in parties like CPI and CPI (Marxist).
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