Standing on a stage in the center of one of India’s most prestigious universities, the firebrand politician looked out at the cheering supporters before him and issued a sharp challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“The idea of India is under threat,” said Kanhaiya Kumar, a leftist politician from the northeastern state of Bihar, his voice rising in the cold evening air. “We will not stop. Let the government use force. Let them bring the police.” He paused. “We will rise to prove them wrong. Listen, Modi!”
“Freedom!” the crowd chanted after each line Kumar barked from the stage, jabbing his hand in the air for emphasis and occasionally fingering the red scarf slung around his neck.
The 33-year-old Bihari politician has emerged in recent weeks as a major irritant and political challenge to Modi, a Hindu nationalist who has faced escalating protests over a citizenship law he introduced in December. Critics say the law, the Citizenship Amendment Act, marginalizes India’s Muslim minority and undermines the country’s secular ethos.
There is no single leader in the protests, which are sweeping university campuses and which some students say are inspired by the leaderless anti-government protests in Hong Kong. But a recording of Kumar’s “Freedom” anthem is played at almost all of them, with the crowds joining in for the chorus.
Modi has won back-to-back national elections with strong majorities, and the Communist Party of India faction that Kumar leads has little clout nationally. But a senior aide to the prime minister says the government is worried that his prominence and messaging could undermine Modi’s policies and weaken him politically.
Kumar’s message has largely focused on accusations that Modi has failed to address rising unemployment and create jobs for millions of young Indians, and that his hardline pro-Hindu policies are undermining the country’s secular identity and making life difficult for minorities like Muslims. When asked about his policies in a telephone interview with Reuters, Kumar declined to make “political promises” beyond pledging to uphold the constitution, saying his main aim was to hold the government to account.
“Let us not forget Modi has used religion to accentuate the fault lines, and he has failed to create jobs. I don’t want anyone to forget this,” said Kumar.
While analysts say that Kumar’s rise does not immediately threaten Modi, it could provide a basis for a resurgence of the opposition parties that were trounced by the prime minister’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the national elections in May.
Several political parties, including the main opposition Congress party, have tried to enlist Kumar to their camps, but he has so far been non-committal.
“His presence widens the scope for the fragmented opposition to unite in the near term to dent Modi’s governing style,” said Sanjay Kumar, director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, an independent research institute in Delhi.
Kanhaiya Kumar’s speech at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), which has been rocked repeatedly by clashes between opponents and proponents of the new law, attracted hundreds of supporters on Jan 7.
But his words have resonated far beyond the gates of JNU’s leafy campus. Kumar’s speeches are watched avidly by his supporters – he has about 2 million YouTube subscribers and a million Twitter followers – and his anti-Modi slogans are chanted at protests across the country.
While he has been a well-known critic of the Modi government for several years, the recent protests have put him at center stage in the fragmented and weakened political opposition.
“Kumar is unique and forces everyone to think and question. He has been able to fill the gap created by absence of opposition,” said Sanjay Kumar of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.—Agencies