Making a sense of Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union (JNUSU) elections

For an outsider, the JNU election is all about ‘laal salaam, comrade, hum ladenge saathi’ and of course, Kanhaiya Kumar.

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Updated: Sep 16, 2018, 10:20 AM IST

The Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, has announced the date (14th September) for JNUSU (Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union) elections. For an outsider, the JNU election is all about ‘laal salaam, comrade, hum ladenge saathi’ and of course, Kanhaiya Kumar. However, this is only a part of the picture and there is much more to it. It is among rarest of the rare students-union election in the country where the use of money power is minimal and votes are sought primarily in the name of ideology and issue ranging Palestine to Pallet guns, Libya to Library and Trump to Karat! In the fight for four central panel posts (President, Vice-President, General Secretary and Joint Secretary) are student wing of all major national parties.

Once considered to be the left bastion or the ‘laalgadh’, the JNU is no longer a battlefield for the contest between different shades within the left ideology. In fact, it has moved miles away from its ideological stereotype. At present, the main contest is between three ideologies; the central-right saffron, represented by RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) student wing, the ABVP (Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad), the Ambedkarite ideology, the blued, represented by BAPSA (Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association) and the parliamentary left, the red, represented by a handful of organisations including the AISF (All India Students Federation), the student wing of CPI (Communist Party of India), AISA (All India Students Association), the student wing of CPI-ML (Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation), SFI (Students Federation of India), the student wing of CPM (Communist Party of India-Marxist) and DSF (Democratic Students Federation), the break-away faction of the SFI. The student wing of the Indian National Congress, the NSUI (National Students Union of India) is only a marginal player with negligible presence in the campus and has not been able to make any concrete presence for very long. This election will also witness the candidate from Chattra Rashtirya Janta Dal, the student wing of Former CM of Bihar Lalu Prasad Yadav’s party RJD making its debut in the JNU politics, apart from three independent candidates for the post of JNU President.

In the national context, the left seems to be getting redundant electorally as well as ideologically and JNU is no exception to it. This decline of left in JNU has paved the way for the ABVP and the BAPSA to emerge as a dominant player in the game. The left parties had been in a state of shock by the gradual rise of the ABVP from 2014 in JNUSU elections, an organisation not considered to be a serious contender of power earlier. This handsome rise of ABVP has been largely alluded to the coming of NDA government in power in 2014 and the massive popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi among the youth. However, the real nightmare for the left had come only in the 2015 elections, when ABVP’s Saurabh Sharma was able to win the post of Joint Secretary, defeating not only other candidates but also the general perception of the people that ABVP would never win in an allegedly leftist stronghold. But it was only after fourteen years that ABVP managed to win any seat in the central panel. The last time it won a seat in the central panel was in the year 2001, when ABVP’s Sandeep Mahapatra managed to win the post of JNUSU President.

Interestingly, he defeated his nearest rival by a margin of one vote. Since then no ABVP leader has been able to make any mark in the JNU politics and it was only Saurab Sharma who ended this drought for ABVP in 2015. This victory of ABVP in the campus after a long time was considered as a ‘sort of coup’ that created huge panic among the communist parties so much so that for the first time two previous arch rivals, the SFI and the AISA, came together for a seat-sharing alliance for the elections in 2016 in order to “…prevent the ABVP from acquiring power in JNUSU.” The year 2016 also saw the infamous 9th February incident, where a program organized by DSU (Democratic Students Union), the student organisation of the banned ultra-left party the Communist Party of India (Maoist) to commemorate the death anniversary of Afzal Guru, the militant who was awarded death penalty for his role in the attack on the Parliament of India, allegedly witnessed sloganeering against the national unity.

The JNUSU election for 2018 will be vociferously fought by all the major player perhaps with the same zeal, but for different reasons. At a time when the general elections of 2019 are only months away, the victory in JNU for the ABVP would aid the BJP, the party having ideological convergence with the ABVP, in not only winning the battle of perception as well the ideology vis-à-vis the communist and centrist forces, it would also help it portray that the support of youth (the largest social group to vote BJP in 2014) is still intact any narrative of ‘youth disenchantment’ with the Modi Government is only superficial and artificially manufactured by the opposition. Victory in JNU would also boost the morale of cadre of the RSS in gaining some brownie points, especially in states like Bengal and Kerala, as significant chunk of students in JNU come from these two states, who are generally considered to be left-sympathisers and where the Parivar is in neck to neck fight in challenging the hegemony of the left. For the BAPSA, winning JNU would mean providing representation to Dalits and especially the Muslims, who allegedly feel ‘disempowered’ by the void created by the weakening of the left forces. It would also send the wider message that politics of social justice can be utilized in fighting the Modi government and that the real opposition to the Hindutva ideology is not communism or centrism, but the Ambedkarism or the so called ‘unity of the oppressed’.

For the left, it is nothing less than a do or die situation. Out of power in all the major states of the country including their once strong fort Tripura and Bengal, the defeat in JNU would further throw its future into oblivion. It would also mean death knell for leftist ideology in the heart of Delhi, and in an institution which boasts of producing key left leaders like Sitaram Yechury, Prakash Karat (both JNUSU President at one point) and Kavita Krishnan. The larger perception that would build up is that ‘red has faded’ in their own safe heaven. It would be detrimental to their academic interests too, as their fight against alleged ‘saffronisation of education’ would then be considered a lost one for their inability to prevent their last citadel from getting captivated by either blue (Ambedkarite) or saffron (Hindutva). This is the reason why all the left parties are fighting together in alliance known as ‘left-unity’, something unthinkable a few years before, when the greatest enemy of the AISA used to their fellow leftist organisation, the SFI and not the rightist ABVP. The NSUI would zealously try to improve is performance in the elections so that it can give the larger message that the youth of the country is tilting towards the Congress, which would be a shot in the arm for the congress party, especially when it is trying to corner Modi government over critical issues like jobs, economy and corruption.

The results of the JNUSU elections are less about the numeric superiority but more about the battle of perceptions. Henceforth the results would be keenly looked upon by the 24X7 electronic media as well as by the politicians of all hue and colour.

(The writer is a research scholar in the Centre for West Asia Studies (CWAS), School of International Studies (SIS), JNU, New Delhi.)

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)

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