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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 39, September 20, 2014

Money-Muscle Power in Student Union Elections and National Politics

Analysis of Delhi University Student Politics

Monday 22 September 2014

by Kamal Kumar and Alisha Dhingra

Student politics is seen as one of the interesting and lively aspects of the student’s campus-life, something which leverage and shape her/his future personality as well as political under-standing. The model of student politics in India has been encouraged to spread the ethos of democracy among the youth and to stimulate them to actively partake in national politics. From India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to the former Indian President and missile-man, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam—all have, as the helmsmen of national politics, seen the youth participating in student politics. In this regard, the DUSU elections have produced leaders like Arun Jaitley, Ajay Maken, Kapil Sibal, Vijay Goel and Viresh Pratap Singh, among others, who today are playing a significant and effective role in their respective political parties. In this way, this firm association between student politics and national politics cannot be simply ignored. Student politics can be seen as representative of the youth’s national political culture.

The genesis of student politics in India can be traced back to the 1950s, though student activism was at its peak in the wake of the Sarvodaya Movement headed by Jaya Prakash Narayan during the 1970s.

Along with student bodies and the university administration, major political parties also show their intense interest in the Delhi University Students Union (DUSU) elections. In fact, various student unions are the wings of the major national and regional political parties. For example, Chhatra Janata Dal-United, Chhatra Samajvadi Sangh (CJS), Indian National Students Organisation (INSO), National Students Union of India (NSUI) and so on. These parties directly or indirectly aim to connect the students with their specific political ideology and further strongly consolidate their support-base amongst the youth. As Delhi University is the largest Central University and students from all over the country come to study here, the DUSU elections are crucial for the mobilisation of the youth and the outcome of these elections can be seen as an indication of the political mood amongst the youth. There has been inten-sification of interest among the political parties for the DUSU elections because of the pending Legislative Assembly elections in Delhi.

Similar to the bipolar competition at the national level between the BJP and Congress, in the Delhi University Students Union (DUSU) elections, the main contest is usually between the two arch rivals, that is, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and National Students Union of India (NSUI). The latter is the student wing of the Indian National Congress while the former is strongly influenced by the ideology of the RSS and BJP. In addition, one can easily see the prominent leaders of these two national political parties roaming around the campus during the election period.

The polls to elect the office bearers of the students union at Delhi University were held on September 12, but the various student organisations started campaigning about a month ago with their programmes to woo the students. The effect of the Modi wave was seen in the outcome of the DUSU elections as the ABVP won all the four seats this time after a period of 18 years. The impact of the anti-Congress trend was an important factor in the NSUI’S debacle in the DUSU elections.

An estimated 42 per cent turnout was recorded in the university’s student union elections in 2014, which has been pronounced as the highest in the past seven years whereas in the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), the percentage of voter turnout in the 2014 student union elections was around 55 per cent. Clearly, it shows the lukewarm attitude among the students regarding the patterns of politics at DU. Student politics mobilises youth and creates political awareness among them that can lead to their participation in large numbers in national politics as well. The percentage of youth voters (18-23 years of age) was 68 per cent in the 2014 General Elections, the highest over all the General Elections. (Sanjay Kumar; 2014) The increase in the percentage of youth voters can be linked to greater mobilisation which was reflected in the higher turnout in the DUSU elections as well.

In order to increase the turnout this year, an opportunity was provided to candidates to reach a wider audience by broadcasting their speeches on the Community Radio 90.4 MHz. Moreover, a website was hosted by the Delhi University Computer Centre to upload the election agenda-related material. Apart from these measures, a debate should be conducted amongst the candidates about the various issues of their campaign. This can go a long way in creating interest and awareness amongst the students as well as help them in making more informed choices while casting their vote, because it will assist them to differentiate the stand of various candidates.

Despite the fact that DU has recently won the top position in India amongst all the Central Universities as per a survey by the popular Time magazine, the limitless use of money and muscle was explicitly visible in the DUSU elections. Cam-paigning with the support of outsiders during the election period along with long queues of buses to offer recreational services ranging from metro-walk to food-plaza to students was quite a common sight. Undoubtedly, the main purpose of such recreational services offered by the prospective candidates was to get the students’ support for their specific bodies.

In this era of information technology, leading student bodies resort to high ultra-modern technological means to attract students such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc. These organisa-tions also do not refrain from using violent means to attain their ends. On September 4, 2013, The Indian Express published, for instance, a snippet showing that the DUSU’s prospective candidate hired goons to assault competitors. More specifically, it pointed out that “campaig-ning for the Delhi University Students Union (DUSU) elections got off to a violent start on Tuesday with the police claiming that a candidate standing for the post of President in the elections hired goons to beat up his opponent and his supporters”. Moreover, leading student bodies also take into account the caste equations along with other aspects for securing electoral triumph. Keeping in mind the growing influence of money and muscle-power at the DUSU, it would not be wrong to say that these student union elections since the past few years have become synonymous with the stereotypical General Elections where the use of money and muscle-power along with several malpractices are quintessential. Against this backdrop, the DU’s Chief Electoral Officer recently, in an interview with the HT correspondent, said: “We have installed CCTVs in our colleges and at the north campus to keep a check on the students’ activities. We have also appointed videogra-phers’ teams to check the violations. There is also a Defacement Act in place, due to which FIR is registered automatically.”

The various concerns of the students become the main agenda of the student unions only during election time. Often students can be seen complaining about the dilemma that they only see their representatives around election-time. At the same time, there has been hardly ever a movement with widespread support of students in the history of the DUSU that aimed to bring about far-reaching reforms in university administration and campus-life. Even today, sensitive issues like the safety of women students in the colleges and the availability of U-Special buses remain gimmicks for the student organisations. However, leading student bodies do show their concerns about these issues before elections, but after securing power at the DUSU, they continue with their apathetic attitude. Consequently nothing changes on the ground. It is tragic to recall the vicious killing of a girl student in 2012 in the South Campus. Since then, reports relating to women’s molestations in the campus keep appearing in daily newspapers. Still, the student bodies are not sensitive enough to take the responsibility of protecting the students. Last year also saw reports relating to violence committed on students from the North-East and therefore, the agenda of their security found prominence in the campaign for the DUSU elections this time.

The deplorable fact is that in these elections the students wholeheartedly support those student bodies which set aside rules and regulations during elections. However, these are mostly first-year students who are so thrilled and excited about their upcoming college life that do not pay much heed to the issues aired by various student organisations and their election promises and not collect information about the varied contestants before casting their vote. On the other hand, in general, we can see the indifference among the second and final year students over these elections, probably because they are by and large familiar with these gimmicks and empty promises which are largely viewed as mere means for mobilisation. Therefore, they are less interested and enthu-siastic to participate in the electoral processes which often result in their low presence at the polling booths.

In 2006, the Hon’ble Supreme Court (SC) laid down the rules and guidelines based upon the recommendations of the Lyngdoh Committee—which was set up by the Ministry of Human Resource Development, in accordance with an order of the SC dated December 2, 2005, under Jay M. Lyngdoh (former Chief Election Commi-ssioner)—to ensure fairness and trans-parency in the elections of students unions in colleges, universities and other institutions of higher education across the nation. According to the guidelines, the maximum permitted election-related expenditure for a candidate shall not exceed Rs 5000, and if any candidate is found and proven to have violated the code of conduct, his/her candidature would be cancelled and liable for appropriate punishment. But the DUSU elections have been demonstrating over the years that this provision and guideline. exists only on paper. If we minutely scrutinise and fairly audit the election expenses of every candidate of the leading student bodies, such as the ABVP and NSUI, those will definitely exceed Rs 20 lakhs. This sum of money is more than the amount of Rs 8 lakhs which is the maximum expense-limit prescribed for the Assembly elections of small States with low population density like Goa, Manipur, Mizoram and Meghalaya, among others, by the Election Commission. This shows to what extent money matters in these student union elections.

Moreover, as per another guideline laid down by the SC, “no candidate shall be permitted to make use of printed posters, printed pamphlets, or any other printed material for the purpose of canvassing. Candidates may only utilise hand-made posters for this purpose, provided that such hand-made posters are procured within the expenditure limit set out herein above.” But, in practice, this rule too is openly flouted, and one can see a plethora of printed posters and pamphlets not only across the campus, but also all over the important places of Delhi during the campaigning. Further, the limited campaigning time makes it difficult for enquiry into complaints registered with the Election Committee and therefore it is difficult for the latter to resort to any strict action before the conduct of elections.

Another important fact is that the indepen-dent candidates at the national level and State level elections from time to time are making their presence felt. However, in India’s most prestigious Central University, the DU Student Union elections, the success of independent candidates seems to be negligible with an exception in the 2009 elections wherein an independent got one seat.

Similarly, the student organisations of radical and Leftwing persuasions—which in general dominate student politics in the JNU—could not ever show their presence in the DUSU, though their voting share is growing with every passing election. Thus the DUSU elections have become a bipolar contest between the prosperous and powerful student bodies, that is, the ABVP and NSUI, because of their proximity to the capitalists’ resources and means for mobilising students. Only because of this context the victory of a candidate with a poor economic background can be no more than a dream. It is not unfair to say that only the mighty can climb this wall which has money and muscle at its base. This might be because of the fact that students participating in the DUSU elections see it as their first step to climb the ladder of national politics as well as regional politics instead of bringing about any pragmatic change in the students’ campus-life. In the Western world, student unions are inclined towards the Left- wing libertarianism ideology which revolves around individual, civil and sexual freedoms that firmly shape the varied parameters of student politics and invigorate the latter so that it could challenge the traditional patterns of mobilisation and organisation.

There is an unending debate both within and outside the government institutions about the measures to be taken to carry out electoral reform in order to ensure transparency and fairness in the electoral process. It has been observed that campaign expenditures influence the outcome of elections. In India, it is widely being felt that election-fund raising is giving excessive power to wealthy individuals and the big business. In this regard, it is imperative that various aspects of student politics should also be considered seriously and necessary steps should be taken to further supplement the reform procedures related to elections. The leaders of student unions can become the future leaders of the nation; therefore it is necessary to restrict the student leaders from using corrupt means so that they do not rely on such means in national politics. Moreover, if the financial reforms are seriously implemented at the level of student politics, then this would provide an opportunity for students from humble economic backgrounds to enter student politics and consequently national politics.

In this context, it is essential that the guidelines set by the SC based on the recommen-dations of the Lyngdoh Committee should be firmly implemented, and the agencies endowed with responsibilities of implementation and monitoring the guidelines should be further strengthened. In addition, the guidelines related to election expenditure need to be reviewed keeping in view the geographical region of any particular university’s campus. For instance; the fifty colleges affiliated to DU are spread all over Delhi and thus the student organisations have to cover a much wider area than the Jawaharlal Nehru University. While drawing up guidelines, the university administration must pay heed to such subjective aspects instead of seeking any kind of uniformity. Also, a short session of discussion on campus elections
along with other important issues should be organised for the freshers during the orientation programmes initiated by the university and particular colleges so that they can develop their own discretion while casting their vote.

On the whole, there is an urgent need to check the ever growing power of money and muscle in student politics. The fair and trans-parent management of student politics at DU and elsewhere can possibly play a fundamental role in enabling the youth, who share the largest ratio in India’s population, towards being more active citizens as well as more conscioius political humans.

The authors: Kamal Kumar is an Assistant Professor, Satyawati College (Day), University of Delhi and Alisha Dhingra is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Delhi.