Campus Politics: Moving across the Left-Right spectrum of Universities in Delhi
Student bodies play a critical role not only in the lives of the students but also have a great deal of influence on the larger political discourse in the country.
Student politics in India continues to influence political discourse in the country and has played a key role in mobilizing youth on socio-political issues. Most of these student bodies are affiliated with political parties and their elections are heavily funded by the political patrons. This has often pushed campus politics to the centre stage of the political scenario of a state and the country.
Campus politics has often merged into and given rise to protests and movements of mass scale in India since before independence. The first documented student protest dates back to 1905 when students of Eden College, Calcutta burned down then viceroy Lord Curzon’s effigy to protest the partition of Bengal. The last couple of years have witnessed a fresh spate of student protests and strikes across universities in India. The issues raised during these strikes and protests have ranged from fee hikes in colleges and hostels to protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2013. In most cases, student protests are led by student bodies & unions elected directly or indirectly by the students.
The role these student bodies play not only in the lives of the students but also in influencing the larger political discourse highlights the need to take a closer look at their nature and role on the campuses. In our “Campus Politics’’ series, we seek to explore the major student bodies and organizations across the country and talk about their importance, relevance, and the issues surrounding student involvement in politics.
Are all student organizations affiliated with political parties?
Student organizations affiliated with almost all political parties can be found across major universities today. Various student and chhatra wings of political parties have also been instrumental in mobilizing college students. The emergence of student bodies affiliated with political parties and groups dates back to the pre-independence period. The All India Students’ Federation, affiliated with the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation, is the oldest student organisation affiliated with a political party and dates back to August 1936. This was followed by the formation of the All India Sikh Students’ Federation, the youth wing of the Shiromani Akali Dal in 1943. In 1948, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) activist Balraj Madhok founded the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP).
Similarly, The National Students’ Union of India (NSUI), the student arm of the Indian National Congress, was founded by former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1971 after the merger of the Kerala Students Union and the West Bengal Chhatra Parishad. In 1993, with the formation of the Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA), student bodies have encompassed representation to the backward communities. The body represents students from the SCs, STs, OBCs, religious minorities, and other oppressed communities.
However, not all universities in India allow student bodies associated with political parties. Some institutions such as Mumbai University, Banaras Hindu University, and IITs have a comparatively autonomous culture with more focus on independent candidates not affiliated with any political party. Others such as the Delhi University (DU) and the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) have a much more active students’ body working mostly in line with their parent parties’ agendas.
Delhi University Students’ Union or DUSU
Elections to the DU’s student body, Delhi University Students’ Union (DUSU) is regarded as one of the most popular events of student politics in India. In 2018–19, Delhi University had an enrollment of nearly 6.5 lakh students across conventional and distance modes, and more than half of its students come from states other than Delhi, making it the forefront of higher education in the country. Elections to the student body of DU are held every year in August or September. The victories and losses of candidates from student bodies affiliated with major political parties have most often been a reflection of the political climate of the country. In DUSU elections as well, the student body affiliated with the party in power at the centre has mostly gone ahead to win top posts.
In addition to the DUSU which acts as an umbrella organization for all the colleges, each college affiliated with the University elects its own student body annually. However, several prominent colleges affiliated with the university have stayed away from DUSU elections. For instance, top colleges like St. Stephens, Kamala Nehru, Daulat Ram, Lady Shri Ram, and Delhi College of Arts and Commerce are not a part of DUSU elections and have separate in-college elections with independent candidates for their union. The DUSU mainly has four central panel positions- President, Vice President, Secretary, Joint-Secretary, and Sports President. Elections to all the posts are held by direct voting by the students of the University and member Colleges.
Over the years and as the role of political parties in student politics has increased, campus politics in DUSU has become a show of money and muscle power as thousands of flyers flood the streets of campuses and posters are put up all over the city. Moreover, as different techniques are used for mass polarization of students, societies, regional associations and communities form a major part of the collective vote bank for these student organizations backed by national and state political parties.
Students’ Union in other major universities in Delhi
The Jawaharlal Nehru University has been at the centre of several controversies in the past few years. While the university is known to have fostered a culture of political debate and discussion, the elections to the student body, JNUSU, are not as much an affair as that of DUSU. Campus politics in the university has largely centred around liberal, pluralistic, inclusive, and secular values in academia and beyond. The vibrant culture and political discourse of the renowned university has birthed many public personalities such as S. Jaishankar, Sanjaya Baru, Nirmala Sitharaman, and Amitabh Kant amongst others.
Politics in the university has largely been dominated by student bodies affiliated with left parties. Between 1974–2008 and 2012–17, in the annual elections of the students’ union, the Students’ Federation of India (SFI) — the student branch of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI[M]) — has won the post of president.
Some other universities do not allow any space for campus politics to flourish. The students’ union of the Jamia Millia Islamia University, which has a student enrolment of nearly 17,000, was banned in 2006. This was as the administration blamed the student body for exercising power in areas where it had no jurisdiction. In October 2017 as the matter was still sub-judice, 16 student groups — including NSUI, AISA (All India Students’ Association — the student wing of Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist) Liberation), Chhatra Yuva Sangharsh Samiti (backed by AAP), and representatives from the Samajwadi Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Janata Dal (United), and the Peoples Democratic Party-led a joint marched towards vice-chancellor Talat Ahmed’s office to demand the restoration of the Student’s Union. They claimed that the dissolution of the students’ union had created an atmosphere of autocratic rule by the administration. The students and student bodies had been complaining of a lack of hostels, poor placements, regular fear of a fee hike, and fewer scholarships for needy students.
Yesterday’s Students’ Union Heads, Today’s Political Leaders
The campus politics of DUSU and JNUSU, amongst other universities, is deeply integrated with electoral politics at the state and national levels. This is established by the fact that almost all major political parties are represented in the elections to these unions and most student bodies are backed by major political parties. Apart from INC’s NSUI, RSS-backed ABVP, AISA there is also the All India Democratic Students’ Organisation associated with Socialist Unity Centre of India (Communist) and the youngest of the lot- Chhatra Yuva Sangharsh Samiti (CYSS) backed by AAP amongst others.
Many students who were elected to the top posts of DUSU, such as President, Vice-President, and Secretary amongst others have gone on to become leaders in national and state politics in India. For instance, the late Arun Jaitley, who served as the Minister of Finance and Corporate Affairs of the Government of India from 2014 to 2019, was an ABVP student leader and became president of the DUSU in 1974. He was a renowned face in Indian politics and has previously held the cabinet portfolios of Finance, Defence, Corporate Affairs, Commerce and Industry, and Law and Justice in the Vajpayee government and Narendra Modi government.
Ajay Maken, currently general secretary of the All India Congress Committee (AICC) and a member of the Congress Working Committee (CWC) was the first NSUI candidate to be elected as the President of DUSU in a direct election in 1985. He has gone on to win several elections to MLA and MP positions apart from holding several cabinet posts in the Delhi and Union governments.
The rise of many other prominent political faces of today can also be traced back to student arms of national and state political parties. It includes amongst others, Vijay Goel, former president of BJP Delhi, Alka Lamba, former General Secretary of Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee, Anil Jha Vats, Former Vice President of BJP Delhi, Sitaram Yechury, currently a Politburo member of the Communist Party of India and Shakeel Ahmed Khan- National Secretary, AICC, all of whom have roots in the various students’ union of India’s universities.
Why all may not be well with Campus Politics
Elections to the students’ union of various central universities have been riddled with several controversies in the past few years. Electoral campaigning, fueled mainly by funding from the parent political parties, has been a hotbed for major fights and clashes on and off-campus.
During the 2013 DUSU election, NSUI’s entire poll budget was said to be Rs 1.5 crore, while ABVP spent close to Rs 1 crore in the same elections. According to sources in NSUI and ABVP, while candidates are selected based on their engagement in the organization, their ability to fund their campaign is also taken into consideration. In the same elections, Indian National Students Organization (INSO), which had never won any central panel posts in DUSU till then had spent close to Rs 40 lakh to Rs 50 lakh that year. INSO is an affiliate of the Jannayak Janta Party, both founded by Dushyant Chautala.
According to some reports, financially strong candidates usually have more chances to contest for top posts. Parties do not put the entire funds and candidates for higher posts like president and vice-president are usually expected to contribute 60% to 70% of the campaigning cost. This, to a large extent, mirrors the trend of ticket distribution by political parties for central and state legislative elections where funding to contest from a single seat can go into crores of rupees.
Even as the Lyngdoh committee guidelines issued in 2006 for fair election practices, and backed by the Supreme Court, set the election budget limit at ₹ 5000, just the hoardings put up all around the university area by most parties, cost at least ₹ 10,000 each.
Allegations of Malpractices
Controversies have also emerged around EVM tampering and the eligibility of candidates to their respective courses at the university. During the 2018 DUSU elections, the NSUI raised questions about DUSU Presidential winner Ankiv Basoya’s graduation certificate based on which he secured admission in the DU Post Graduate course. Basoya was a member of the rival party ABVP. Additionally, the demand to hold re-elections came from then Delhi Congress president Ajay Maken. He accused ABVP of EVM tampering and demanded the elections be re-conducted on paper ballots.
DUSU elections have been infamous for misuse of muscle power and use of strong-arm tactics. According to some accounts, the increased popularity of student politics is known to affect the academic record of students as well. Moreover, on paper elections are fought on promises made by various candidates, students rarely vote in an informed manner and tend to rely more on peer influence. Apart from this, there have also been allegations of lack of representation of students from northeast India and other minority communities. Given a student body’s primary role is to represent student demands, they are accused of not taking into consideration the interests of the marginalized groups.
Undoubtedly, the dynamic nature of elections to the student bodies helps build and preserve a healthy political culture and an atmosphere of debate and discourse on the campus. Representative student bodies on college campuses serve as a great platform for the youth to express their opinions on diverse social and political issues. Student bodies, elected or nominated have also led and contributed to social movements and protests of national and state importance. These platforms help in creating the political leaders of tomorrow and also help the youth understand the relevance of social mobilization. However, several measures need to be taken to ensure a clean, free, and fair electoral process is adopted in the students’ body elections. The role of any representative student body is to ensure that they represent the interests of students affiliated with the university and act as a bridge between students and the college/university authorities. Conducting fair elections is critical to ensuring that these student bodies act as accurate representatives of students and their interests.
Damini Mehta /New Delhi
With inputs from Abhinay Chandna, Akansha Makker, Kashish Babbar, and Kavya Sharma, Interns at Polstrat.
From Polstrat, a non-partisan political consultancy which aims to shift the narrative of political discourse in the country from a problem-centric to a solutions-oriented approach.