Kanhaiya Kumar joining Congress continues party’s tilt to the Left; insiders counsel centrist path

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Former JNU students' union president and CPI leader Kanhaiya Kumar is the latest in a long line of Left leaders to either join the Congress or form a strong association with the party. In fact, two-time Bihar MLA Shakeel Ahmed and Congress whip in the Rajya Sabha Naseer Hussain are JNU alumni and were associated with Leftist politics while there.

Among more recent examples, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra's aide Sandeep Singh and probable UP election candidate Mohit Dubey were also with Left parties at JNU.

Kanhaiya Kumar will join his university colleagues in the Congress on Tuesday, along with Independent Vadgam MLA and Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani. The latest additions have led political observers to ponder whether the Congress is abandoning its decades-old centrist position and tilting to the Left.

The party has shown Leftist inclinations on occasion in the past, particularly during the tenure of Indira Gandhi as prime minister. Indira's bent towards the Soviet Union model was believed to have slowed India's march towards liberalisation.

In fact, it was Indira Gandhi's Leftist leanings that helped her engineer a split within the Congress and strengthen her grip on the new Congress. Slogans like 'garibi hatao' helped revive her and the party's fortunes in the 1971 elections. By her second stint in office, the pitfalls of following a Leftist line in her economic policies dawned on her and she switched to the path of modernisation, something which her son and future prime minister Rajiv Gandhi firmly believed in.

Indira's successors from the Congress €" Rajiv Gandhi, PV Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh, were never admirers of the Left. They felt that any Left leanings would harm the country, and with the collapse of the Soviet Union, time had come to tread the centrist path.

It came as a surprise to many when Sonia Gandhi displayed some of her mother-in-law's Leftist inclinations, and filled the national advisory council (NAC) with those who ascribed to the Leftist ideology like Aruna Ali and Jean Dietrich. The NAC framed guidelines that were often foisted on the Manmohan Singh government such as the farm loan waiver, food bill and NREGA.

This ideological tussle between the party and the government led to awkward moments. Sources say Manmohan Singh was not too comfortable with the food bill as he feared it could become a drain on the economy when funds were in short supply.

But Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi are picking up their mother's trail. Sandeep Singh, who was once associated with the student wing of the CPI(ML), is Priyanka's political secretary. Back in 2005, he was among those who waved black flags at Singh over his government's policies. He tendered an apology for the same when he quit the CPI(ML)-backed All India Students Association and joined the Congress.

Rahul Gandhi is also known to take advice from CPM leader Sitaram Yechury and DU professor Apoorvanand. Those close to Rahul say his appreciation of these leaders stems from his belief that the Left ideology is the only one that can connect his party to the downtrodden. This would help him project the narrative that while the Congress is with the aam aadmi, the BJP is a "suit-boot ki sarkar".

"Kanhaiya Kumar can no longer be associated with the Left of JNU. He is an aggressive Hindi-speaking heartland politician which will help us," a senior Congress leader close to Rahul Gandhi said.

But Kanhaiya's entry into the party has already led to controversy, with some fearing his baggage of controversies at JNU would drag the party down. First to go vocal is Manish Tewari who tweeted without naming Kanhaiya Kumar. "As speculation abounds about certain Communist leaders joining @INCIndia it perhaps may be instructive to revisit a 1973 book 'Communists in Congress' Kumarmanglam Thesis. The more things change the more they perhaps remain the same (sic)," he said.

Many in Kerala Congress, too, are uncomfortable with the induction of Left leaders. "We have our own people. We have our own ideology. When these Left leaders join us, they don't shed their ideologies. They only bring them and add it to ours. This makes us look more and more Left," a Congress leader from the state told News18.

With the BJP and other political parties pushing for liberalisation and centrist thinking, it remains to be seen whether the Left-tilt will pay off for the Congress.

Pallavi Ghosh has covered politics and Parliament for 15 years, and has reported extensively on Congress, UPA-I and UPA-II, and has now included the Finance Ministry and Niti Aayog in her reportage. She has also exclusively interviewed Narendra Modi, Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra.

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