As per news reports, firebrand young leaders Kanhaiya Kumar and Jignesh Mevani are set to join the Congress on October 2. This, when it takes place, will be of great symbolic value for the grand old party, as it comes at a time when it is facing incessant internal squabbles; not to mention leaders deserting it for other political parties. In this context, young blood joining the party is a much-needed shot in the arm for the Congress.
Kumar is a former Jawaharlal Nehru Union (JNU) student’s union president and was the Communist Party of India (CPI)’s candidate for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls from Begusarai, in Bihar. Mevani is an independent MLA from Gujarat. What makes both leaders an apt fit for the Congress is that they have been vociferous opponents of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its leadership, and, more importantly, can breathe life into the Congress in the Hindi heartland.
About two-third of India’s population is young (below 35 years), and as good orators, both Kumar (34) and Mevani (38) would be able to establish a direct link with a young India. These leaders have a large social media fan following, and they could help the Congress attract young voters whose opinions are being largely shaped by social media.
Both leaders are activist-turned-politicians, are Left-leaning, and can help the Congress attract votes from pockets which still have a sizeable Left vote bank. In many such pockets, where the Left parties are weak, the electorate could turn to the grand old party because of these leaders.
Mevani represents Vadgam, a Schedule Caste reserved constituency in Gujarat, and has been actively taking up the cause of the Dalits and the tribals in the state. He could help the Congress garner support among the SC-ST population (22 percent) in the assembly polls due in 2022.
The Congress has opted for young leadership in Gujarat with Pradesh Congress President Amit Chavda (45), Leader of Opposition Paresh Dhanani (45), and Working President Hardik Patel (28). Patel, the leader of Patidar agitation, joined the Congress before the 2019 general elections. When Mevani joins the Congress ranks in Gujarat it will help the party balance caste alliances with Chavda (OBC), Dhanani (Leuva Patel), Hardik (Kadva Patel), and Mevani (SC) at the helm.
In Bihar, the Congress has been weakened after the advent of mandal and kamandal, and is currently mainly relying on the strength of its alliance partner, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). Its old hand and nine-time MLA Sadanand Singh passed away recently, and at the moment it does not have a tall leader with state-wide presence. Congress state president Madan Mohan Jha offered to resign after the debacle in the assembly polls in 2020, but the party is yet to find his replacement.
If Kumar were to join the Congress, he can infuse energy into the state cadre. However, it is to be seen if the old guard would welcome him with open arms. Moreover, Kumar could be seen as a rival by RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav. These issues would require deft handling by an experienced hand in the Congress leadership.
In addition to the positives, the Congress also faces risks. Both Kumar and Mevani are young, popular and strongly-opinionated leaders whose visions may not always align with the party’s. That is a risk with activist-leaders. At the moment their entry into the Congress is a good example of the politics of accommodation, where both the young leaders and the Congress need each other. For Kumar the future in electoral politics in the Left front is bleak, and Mevani might require a hand to retain his seat in 2022.
The Congress runs like an old bureaucratic set up where decisions are slow and come from the top; the two young leaders may find it hard to adjust to this culture. Also, the expectations of the party from these leaders have to be matched with reality.
If Kumar and Mevani join the Congress it clearly has Rahul Gandhi’s stamp of approval. Gandhi’s wish to expand the base of the party and induct outsiders who bring a fresh perspective is a part of his effort to overhaul the party organisation. As witnessed in Punjab recently, Gandhi is set to change the party, and its old creaky ways of functioning. However, news reports suggest that he is facing resistance from the G-23 which is blocking Prashant Kishor’s entry.
Overall, Kumar and Mevani joining the Congress will have a positive impact on the party, and it will be a major push in attracting young leaders and voters towards the party before the assembly polls in 2022, and the 2024 general elections.