By the time the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) presidential candidate, Mukesh Kumar Mishra, rises to speak at the 18 October debate of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Student’s Union (JNUSU), it is already 11 pm and the candidates of the Congress and Samajwadi (SP) parties’ student wings have had their turn. The audience, a thousand students spilling out of a maroon tent on a patch of lawn between two hostels, includes several hundred party backers sitting in blocks chanting down one another or flailing Mukesh.
Once he starts, it quickly becomes clear that Mukesh is not a gripping orator, even though his height gives him a stage presence. To make matters worse for him, students affiliated with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M) launch into several rounds of jeering as he tries to find his stride. His voice suddenly becomes choppy; spectators see him gesture and move his mouth, but no sound comes out of the speakers. The audio system has failed partially, and comes back momentarily before going out completely. Election workers scurry about to investigate and repair, and a confused Mukesh retakes his seat on stage. The presidential debate on hold, the audience turns its attention back on itself.
“Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh? We shall fight we shall win!” shout supporters of the CP1 (M) affiliated Students Federation of India (SFI), who stand face-to-face with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-allied ABVP. “Vande Mataram bolo, Allah se kaam nahi chalega”, is their response. The two groups straddle the median of the tent—the SFI on the left, the ABVP on. the right—while behind them smaller groups of student activists of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), (CPI-ML), the Congress Party, Samajwadi Party, and the Indian Justice Party heckle one another to the beat of drums. These last two groups are new arrivals on campus, the first looking for a boost from SP party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav’s ascendancy to Uttar Pradesh chief ministership on 8 September, the second a dalit party. Both started campaigning on campus late this fall and conventional wisdom counts them out. Outside the tent, students mill about or head over to the nearby dhaba for tea. Up on the stage, election workers continue to fiddle with electrical equipment. Minutes pass.
Sunny Dutta, a JNU alumnus now working for the ABVP national organisation, stands at the side of the tent counselling ABVP members. The interruption in Mukesh’s speech, he claims, is no accident. Dressed in an over-sized Chicago Blackhawks windbreaker, he relates in his refined phrases the plot he sees in the putative technical failure: the election committee, at the SFI’s behest, is sabotaging the ABVP presidential candidate’s speech. He knows, he says, that many election officials are former SFI activists, and says that, “if the debate doesn’t happen, elections should be cancelled. There should be no student union this year”. Back inside the tent, the SFI-ABVP shouting match grows tenser, and someone in the ABVP camp produces a camcorder to record taunts. Sunny surveys the scene as ABVP activists begin to taunt the election workers and observes, “Violence could be possible if the debate is not restarted”.
As it happens, the situation remains under control. Despite an aggressive streak of student activism, JNU campaigns have remained free of the strong-arm tactics and big money that characterise many university elections in India. Students may shout, even push, but violence is rare at JNU. In its early days in the 1970s, the university was actually known for its theory-laden debates among ‘leftists’ than petty hooliganism.
After a nearly two-hour interruption, the sound system is up again. Mukesh retakes the mike and students drift back from the dhaba at the call of his amplified voice, which is swamped by occasional swells of audience jeers and ABVP applause. Following Mukesh is the fourth speaker, Rohit, the incumbent student union president from SFI and the widely acknowledged front-runner in this year’s poll. Rohit wears a maroon kurta, the same shade as the tent, and puts his oratorical gifts on display, sliding easily between English and Hindi, alternating gestures of clenched fists with pointed fingers. He wraps up at 1.20 am, and the final two candidates, from the Justice Party and CPI-ML-backed All India Students Association (AISA), get their turns at the mike. At two in the morning, the election committee stops accepting audience chits for the question-and-answer session, but the crowd remains large and attentive despite the late hour. At 4 am, candidates are making their final remarks, technically violating by several hours the ban on electioneering for Sunday, the mandated cool-off day before Monday’s voting.
As students head back to their hostels in the chilly pre-dawn, the SFI is still the party to beat, but it’s up in the air as to which organisation stands the best chance of knocking it off: ASIA, the ‘uncompromising’ ‘left’; the NSUI, the Congress Party’s student wing with a weak organisational base at JNU but strong off-campus support; or the ABVP, the Hindutva ideologues who captured the student union presidency by one vote in 2000.
Study and struggle
While the presidential debate marks the official climax to the annual campaign, activism and recruitment are year-round activities for all groups at the JNU campus. During the two weeks of admission to college in July-August, they set up shop at the administration building, guiding ‘freshers’ through lines and building personal connections that often lead to membership. Once classes start, groups organise meet-and-greets laden with ideology; in August this year, the ABVP sponsored a trivia contest with prizes like the book The Concept of the Hindu Nation. On 15 August, India’s independence day, the SFI took out a torchlight procession to protest “imperialism” while the ABVP hosted a “patriotic song” rally. On 7 September, in protest against Ariel Sharon’s state visit to India, the AISA burnt an effigy of the Israeli prime minister with a US flag emblazoned on the chest, and the ‘left’ united for a protest march downtown. After the NSUI’s sweep in the Delhi University (DU) student union polls, earlier in September, in which 40,000 students cast ballots, the new cross-town office-bearers came to JNU to address an open-air gathering in a hostel parking lot. On the night of the presidential debate, Delhi University Students Union (DUSU) joint secretary, Ragini Nayak, whose 15,664 vote-margin of victory was the largest among the victorious NSUI candidates, returned to the JNU campus to mingle among Congress supporters.
29 posts are up for grabs every year in the JNU elections, four on the university-wide central panel and 25 councillor seats divided among the schools within the university. In 2002-03, the SFI held all four central panel seats while the councillor seats for the different schools were shared between the SFI, AISA and ABVP, with SFI leading in number. With five councillor seats, the School of Social Sciences is a bastion of the left—it is often a solid SFI panel, though in 2002-03 it gave AISA a seat – while the science schools tend to back the ABVP. The most hotly contested posts are those in the School of International Studies and the School of Languages, both of which are perceived as swing constituencies. While the elections are technically open to students without organisational backing, independents never receive a large share of the vote.
In the weeks preceding the university elections, on-campus students elect hostel presidents and mess committees in fiercely fought contests making use of ‘masked’ party support. During the university elections, the standard procedure of parties is to distribute public statements at mealtimes that announce meetings in the evening “open to all members and sympathisers”. The meetings, usually post-dinner, typically last 90 minutes, and, during the final week of the campaign, party organisers hand out bamboo torches to attendees as they exit, creating fire-lit cavalcades that wind through JNU’s leafy campus in a show of organisational strength.
As is suggested by the presence of national political parties on campus, as well as the print media attention devoted to campaigns—the Delhi dailies carry news on DU and JNU elections almost every day in the run-up to the polls and plaster the winners on page one— university politics in India is a gateway to mainstream politics and by virtue of its physical proximity to the national power centre, JNU’s elections attract more than average attention. JNU alumni’s on the political scene include Sitaram Yechuri and Prakash Karat of the CPI-M politburo. KR Narayanan, president of India 1997 to 2002, also served as JNU’s vice chancellor. Many JNU professors have formal or informal links to mainstream political bodies.
Even so, as elections approached this fall, a common refrain among older students and faculty members was that the 2003 campaign was a let-down from previous years: no serious campus issue captured students’ imagination, they say, and the national political climate, barring revived agitations in Ayodhya, did not hold much potential for mobilisation like it had in years like 1990, when the ABVP made in-roads on campus following VP Singh’s acceptance of the Mandal Commission Report, or 2002, when the Gujarat carnage was still fresh in memory.
Ballot boxing in the national ring
In one sense, student groups are just an extension of mobilisations occurring throughout society, as well as reflections of the fractious character of Indian politics. The relationship between the Congress and the NSUI is illuminating on this point, since the Congress has had an electoral presence in virtually all parts of the country for some period of time since 1947 and the NSUI has served as an important feeder organisation. In August 1999, for instance, Sonia Gandhi called on students of the NSUI to prepare for “an ideological crusade” on the parent body’s behalf. The CPI-M, in a November 2002 statement, maintained that the JNU NSUI “has pinned its hopes on the funds of its parent body and the patronage of the Congress state government”. The endemic divisions plaguing many Congress states units also find parallel in the NSUI.
For its part, the ABVP shares with the RSS and VHP a vision of itself as an oftentimes unappreciated steward of Indian society. On its website, the ABVP declares that, “It would not be out of place to say that only a few people in this country appreciate the uniqueness of this organisation or realise its distinction from other organisation[s] or realise its distinction and understand its contribution to the national life”. Despite the “few people” thinking this, its officially-counted ranks have nonetheless swelled, reaching 1,029,646 in 2000-01— the first year it stood above one million—from a membership base of 186,674 in 1986-87 and the paltry totals of the 50s and 60s. The ABVP also highlights its connections to extra-curricular politics, listing on its websites the names of 33 ABVP, RSS and BJP “martyrs” killed by Maoists in Andhra Pradesh between 1979 and 1997, even giving accounts of the murders, such as that of Gore Main, who “was killed by axing his limbs one by one”. The ABVP also stands by the records of the BJP state and union governments, and highlights alumni in positions of power, such as Murli Manohar Joshi, the Union Human Resources Minister who served as the ABVP All India General Secretary in the early fifties and was recently charge-sheeted for his participation in the Babri Masjid’s demolition.
While the NSUI and ABVP act as extensions of and recruitment bodies for the Congress and BJP, leftist student formations, despite links to parent bodies, must operate in a national political scene where the left carries little weight and an international climate in which communism is seen as being in retreat. One solution to an inhospitable external situation is consciously linking leftist student activities to anti-globalisation movements, which, despite encompassing non-leftist elements, are increasingly popular among young people globally in general, and particularly so among students in India, home to the first-ever Asian Social Forum in January 2003 and the scheduled host (in Bombay) of the 2004 World Social Forum in January. As the case of JNU shows, this tactic is somewhat successful, though the SFI’s detractors, such as a writer in The Pioneer of Allahabad, argue that the student group, “cast originally in the Stalinist mode, is now finding it difficult to reconstruct itself in a less authoritarian form”. Another approach, taken by SFI supporters and critics, is to stake the SFI’s credibility (or lack thereof) on CPI-M-led governments in West Bengal, a somewhat odd strategy that leads students in Delhi or Maharashtra to cast ballots on the basis of policies of a government that runs over 1000 kilometres away in the east. SFI backers highlight land reform and investment in education as the policies ro be proud of; detractors note recent moves in Calcutta to sell off public sector units and reports of cynical CPI-M vote-bank electoral strategies.
AISA’s parent body, the CPI-ML, whose legislative presence is limited to an oppositional role in a few eastern states of India, has never held power at the state or union level, thus making it impervious to charges of maladministration, but making it equally difficult to excite potential supporters with reports of party electoral success and prospects of career advancement within the organisation. According to media reports published in the summer of 2001 referring to Indian intelligence sources, the CPI-ML is linked to the Coordination Committee of Maoist Parties and Organisations of South Asia, an umbrella organisation of Naxalites including the CPI-ML People’s War that allegedly maintains contacts with Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers and Nepal’s Maoists. At any event, AISA supports the rhetoric of revolution if not its (violent) practice, and its mobilisation strategy, like the CPI-ML’s, focuses on the recruitment of disaffected communists or fellow travellers who view the CPI-M and SFI as sell-outs. As a consciously ideologically-loaded and doctrinaire organisation, AISA’s prospects for large-scale mobilisation rest on its ability to ‘politicise’ young people. In this context, the anti-globalisation movement presents both opportunities and pitfalls, on the one hand providing an avenue through which to capture young imaginations, on the other offering its ideological rivals an opportunity to (re)assert their ‘leftist’ credentials.
A leader from Siwan
A month before the JNU elections, Tapas Ranjan Saha, a CPI-ML party worker, conducts an evening information session on the differences within the Indian ‘left’. Criticising the “outright opportunism” of the CPI-M, which has led a ‘left’-front government in West Bengal for a quarter-century, Tapas says that the true Indian `left’ movement, the CPI-MI., faces two dangers, becoming the tail of another movement—the path of the Social Democrats—and indulging in unsustainable “left adventurism”. The CPI-ML, he says, charts the middle path between these two options, while the CPI-M makes unacceptable compromises, such as aligning itself with landlords. A student in the audience asks if the Indian ‘left’ should set aside its differences and unite against the forces of communalism and capitalism, and Tapas says that while this does happen to a limited extent in public protests, the CPI-M is too compromised to take strong stands on economic and foreign policies. The AISA has a smaller membership base at JNU than the SFI—Tapas addresses an assemblage of only 60 students, not all of whom will join AISA—but its members note Mao’s dictum that a small communist movement can be successful if it succeeds in leading society.
Although AISA was founded in JNU only in 1990, its roots date to 1967, when disgruntled CPI-M members left the party to form the CPI-ML after the newly-elected CPI-M government of West Bengal declined to support the peasant uprising in Naxalbari in March of that year. Owing to the split that goes back 35 years, much of AISA’s ire is reserved for the SFI, the dominant ‘left’ organisation on campus and student wing of the CPI-M. “The [SFI-led student] union has allowed the ABVP to actually get away with communal violence on campus and allowed the administration to pursue a privatisation agenda”, says Kavita Krishnan, a JNU Students Union central panel officer from the mid-nineties who now serves as All-India AISA president. “I don’t believe in the concept of an ‘extreme left’. You’re either a revolutionary or you’re not”.
AISA’s most successful leader at JNU was Chandrashekhar Prasad, a Bihar native who quit the National Defence Academy to study at JNU and became the students union vice president in 1993 and a two-term president in the following years. According to Kavita, Chandrashekhar-led unions took on important fights at JNU, leading universities across India against the concerted privatisation push in 1995, partially reversing a 1983 JNU policy limiting reservations, and leading protests against the rape of dalit women in Rajasthan and Orissa. Chandrashekhar left JNU in January 1997 to pursue CPI-ML party work back home in Siwan, a town midway between Patna and Gorakhpur, but his post-university party service was brief. At four in the afternoon on 31 March 1997, according to AISA, goons of the Rashtriya Janata Dal parliamentarian Shahabuddin assassinated him and another ML leader as they spoke from a three-wheeler at a Siwan intersection. No one has ever been convicted of the murders.
AISA has declined at JNU in recent years, losing every central panel race since Chandrashekhar left campus, a trend Kavita attributes to SFI’s de-politicisation of the student body. “Students are told that protesting isn’t a good idea–‘you might go to jail'”, she says, but there is hope in the AISA camp that this year will be different. Early evening on election night, 20 October, several ASIA members sit around a table near the counting station and revisit the campaign over tea. Kavita reviews the day and asserts that “AISA is definitely in the running”, especially its general secretary candidate, Mona Das, who served as a councillor in the School of Social Sciences the previous year and “is expected to be strong because people saw her play an active role in the union”.
Later that night, after preliminary totals have been announced in the School of International Studies races, showing an ASIA candidate likely to win a seat there, the leadership congregates around a table while party backers loiter inside the tent. The AISA leadership is more laid back than that of the other groups; a cigarette floats from the hands of presidential candidate lnteshar Ahmad to two others at the table, while Kavita leisurely converses about ideology, electoral calculations and brings up personal anecdotes. Standing quietly inside the tent are Murari, Vinay and Murtaza, students from Bihar who appear disoriented amidst the shouting and carnival atmosphere of election night. They lack the leadership’s social ease. Murari, from Dharbanga in northwest Bihar, says that the SFI is “an elitist ‘leftist’ organisation” and that he joined AISA only in his second year at JNU after surveying the different groups on campus. “Their struggle is not divorced from the people’s movements, for movements for tribals and dalits”, he says. Vinay and Murtaza nod in agreement as a train of ABVP flag-bearers march by chanting slogans. Murari adds that he met Chandrashekhar during a visit to the JNU campus in the mid-nineties, and that he was impressed with the AISA leader’s humble lifestyle.
One theme of AISA’s campaign was that the SFI surrendered the student struggle by failing to fully support student protests against privatisation of a hostel mess and signing a compromise with the ABVP to refrain from violence following a confrontation provoked by the visit of Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Ashok Singhal on campus in August 2002. Mirroring the schism of their parent parties, AISA castigates the SFI’s “culture of compromise”. “People say that when they vote for us they split the ‘left’ vote and help the ABVP to win”, says Arvind, an AISA backer and American studies student. “But our battle is against both opportunism and communal fascism. We don’t compromise”.
Comrades on campus
The other, larger communist force on campus, AISF-SFI, an alliance between the CPI’s smaller All India Students Federation (AISF) and the SFI, sees things differently. “Every year AISA creates the impression that they’ll sweep, and every year it doesn’t happen”, Ena Panda, the outgoing union general secretary and the 2003 SFI candidate for vice president, says on election night while battling illness and exhaustion. “In 2000, when the ABVP presidential candidate won by one vote, AISA helped them out”. The following year, the SFI bounced backed, garnering 54 percent of the vote in a four-party presidential election, though its vote share dropped to 44 percent in 2002. (The AISA’s shares in the presidential elections of 2001 and 2002 were 8 and 13 percent, respectively.)
On Thursday, 9 October, the SFI hosts its first of three general body meetings for the upcoming elections. Students trickle in slowly, and some comrades at a central table pass the time by singing songs ridiculing the Shiv Sena, but only about 20 students seem to know the words. After opening remarks from SFI organisers, Albeena Shakeel, the highest-ever vote-getter in a JNU presidential election takes the stage. The speech is well delivered and wide-ranging, canvassing the SFI’s work on campus, the national political scene, the upcoming Delhi state polls, and the situation in West Asia. Wearing glasses and a pink salwar kameez, Albeena stands to the side of the central table, gesturing with her right hand to emphasise points. She criticises the Congress for its “soft communalism” and the BJP for saffronisation of education, and praises the student body for its commitment to progressive politics. “The ABVP doesn’t take political positions at JNU”, she declares. “Why? They don’t have the guts to”. The audience continues to swell during her speech until it reaches the room’s 300-person capacity, but the only disruptions are the occasional mobile phone ring and the roar of planes approaching the Indira Gandhi International Airport. Albeena concludes by noting that the Sangh Parivar is weak on campus, but that the university community is still under threat from it. “The RSS realised that it can’t win through elections here. Now they have a new agenda: to close JNU”. After Albeena finishes, another former JNUSU president speaks, following which the room fills with choruses of “lal salaam” as candidates appear at the room’s front and then lead the assembled to the exits.
Eight days later, the SFI hosts its third pre-election meeting; CPI-M politburo member Sitaram Yechuri and left activist Sahiba Farooqui speak, and more women fill out the 350-person audience than on previous nights. One purpose of the high profile guest speakers is to draw in listeners who might otherwise fail to hear student candidates speak, and so before Yechuri and Farooqui make their addresses, general secretary candidate B Mahesh Sarma attempts to make himself known. He criticises the NDA government’s economic policies and the predictions of a 7 percent economic growth in 2003 floated in newspapers in the preceding days—”growth is happening, but it’s in an enclave. 80 percent of people are unaffected”—and pivots his feet back and forth, opening his body to all sides of the U-shaped audience. Mahesh hits the standard SFI talking points, privatisation and communalism, but his delivery style is awkward; he lacks Rohit’s easy stage presence or Kavita’s conversational range.
The SFI claims by far the largest membership total at JNU-1031 this year out of a student body of less than five thousand—but it also receives criticism that it mobilises students, particularly Bengalis, along ethnic lines, and that many of its voters care less about its ideology than about supporting a winning party. Before the 17 October SFI meeting, a group of prospective SFI female voters sit on a retaining wall outside the hostel cafeteria discussing university politics. “We Bengalis are clannish in our ways”, one says. “It’s nice to have someone we know in charge”. Another ventures that about 60 percent of SFI’s voters at JNU don’t fully share the organisation’s ideological positions, but this is an off-hand estimate. Still, she adds, “ideology is just an excuse, just a banner people run under”. For its part, AISA notes that three former SFI-JNUSU presidents from the 1990s have left the CPI-M to join the Congress, abandoning the cause of the ‘left’.
Regardless of why JNU students vote for the SFI, the fact remains that many consistently do, and that, at least in its public statements, SFI consistently takes a vocal stance on anti-imperialist, privatisation and communal themes. SFI voters know that they are voting for a communist formation, notwithstanding AISA’s contentions about SFI making compromises. In the last year, in addition to leading protests against Singhal’s visit and the US war in Iraq, the SFI-led union sponsored speeches by leading ‘left’ intellectuals and documentary screenings on topics ranging from Ayodhya and Palestine to the WTO negotiations. At a time when the left presence at university campuses throughout India is relatively weak, that JNU students have voted in SFI-led student unions for most of the university’s 30-plus elections indicates that the JNU student body is either disproportionately left-leaning relative to the national Indian electorate, or that the JNU unit of the SFI is uniquely capable in mobilising swing voters—or perhaps both. As a disgruntled ABVP supporter notes, “JNU is a leftist school. After Kerala and West Bengal, it’s a qila (fort) of the left”.
On election day, the maroon tent from the presidential debate reappears on the School of International Studies lawn. In the evening, inside the building, the election committee counts votes while, outside, close to 1000 students gather after hostel messes close at nine to feast on snacks from ‘transplanted’ dhabas. They congregate as ABVP, AISA, SFI and NSUI supporters. Election results will be released in stages over the next 24 hours, and even though voting is over, cadre are still leading rounds of chants, and ABVP supporters wind their way through the tent waving saffron flags.
As on the night of the presidential debate, the ABVP takes up position on the tent’s far-right, and Sunny Dutta is back to direct activities. He speculates that fewer students showed up for polling today than in previous elections, which he takes as a positive sign. “Whenever there’s a low turn-out, the ABVP does well”, he says. According to Sunny, younger students tend to vote ABVP, while the ‘left’ polls better among MPhil and PhD students. Inside the tent, some of Sunny’s young voters hang out, playing with flags or huddling against the October chill.
Sunil, from Balia, UP, predicts that the SFI will win, “but I hope that the ABVP does well”. When asked for comment, Shubonil, an SFI organiser, agrees with the likelihood of a Rohit victory, but offers a different spin than Sunny’s on the ABVP’s electoral calculations. “The ABVP is weak this year but they have a strong core. Their voters won’t leave them, at most they just won’t vote”.
It was in 1989, the year the BJP won 89 seats in the lower house of the Indian parliament (Lok Sabha), the the ABVP opened shop at JNU. Throughout the 90s, the BJP increased its national political presence and the ABVP enjoyed similar success at JNU, claiming three of the top four posts in the 1996 student elections and, for the first time, the presidency in 2000. “The Ayodhya events of 1992 had a tremendous effect on campus”, says Sunny, who was then a student in the history centre. “The growth of the ABVP at JNU was linked to it”. Since its presidential victory three years ago, however, the ABVP has lost momentum, losing all university-wide elections and witnessing a drop in its presidential vote to 32 percent in 2001 and 26 percent in 2002.
On the backfoot, the ABVP launched its 2003 campaign at JNU by releasing a series of pamphlets attacking “the chameleon called the Indian left” for what it says is the communists’ failure to recognise the essential unity of India. Its 14 October release, which announced a public meeting that evening, concludes:
“It is time for us to be aware of these “Paki Marxists and Paki Agents”. If we really have to save India from the ISI we have to first finish off these ‘Paki Agents’ who are the internal terrorists of our country… Time has come for us to understand this nefarious design of the so called progressive Marxist in India in the garb of secularism… in reality what they preach, practice and sell is nothing but promoting the process of India’s disintegration and pan-Islamisation through their Anti-National Politics”.
Due to a delay in getting access to the women’s hostel mess where the 14 October meeting is scheduled, Sunny, who says he authored this pamphlet, has to wait at the hostel’s gate along with 20 other ABVP backers until security says the meeting can begin. During the wait, he discusses the AISA-SFI fight, calling it a ruse; the ‘left’ leadership is unified, he says, and it always issues a “fatwa” at the last minute to corral the cadre into a unified block. Moreover, the SFI is actually a front organisation of the ISI, the Pakistani intelligence unit, which has infiltrated JNU.
Attendance at the Karyakarta Sammelan (unlike other groups, the ABVP avoids saying ‘General Body Meeting’), which begins an hour late, hovers around only 100, despite membership claims by ABVP leaders of ten times that number. While ABVP campaign literature is attack-oriented, the meeting’s speakers focus instead on the Hindutva message and the upcoming elections. Yet, despite having finished second in polling the previous year, the leadership does not appear hopeful. “It doesn’t matter if we win or lose—it’s up to god—but if we win, you win”, declares Gautam Chakrabarti, the joint secretary candidate.
The Karyakarta Sammelan, like other student meetings, is predominantly male in attendance, though it differs in other respects. Speakers focus less on national politics than on national ‘cultural’ questions. “Hindutva’s time has not come for a millennium, but now it will run rampant, it will triumph”, predicts the body-building general secretary candidate Ramesh Babu K. Barring presidential candidate Mukesh, the speakers are strong orators, their crisp, confident language matched by athletic swagger, in contrast to the pensiveness of many in the AISA and the mechanised excitement of the NSUI. The audience is quiet, if attentive, refraining from the chanting that characterises other parties’ meetings. The audience does not raise questions or cheer at the announcement of candidates’ names. Dialogue from a Hindi serial in a neighbouring room drifts in, and behind the speakers sits an inattentive security guard looking disinterestedly into the night. At the Karyakarta Sammelan’s conclusion, despite a call for the audience to assemble outside for a torchlight parade, attendees drift off to a dhaba or head back to their hostels, even as shouting from an AISA procession can be heard in the distance
When making hostel visits to shore up support, Mukesh predicts a major victory in the Monday poll- 1200 votes for his campaign, 25 more than Rohit’s total from the previous year. Mukesh says that the ABVP has performed poorly since its narrow 2000 presidential victory because of “leftist organisations’ propaganda and polarisation”, but that this year will be different. Along with him is Ramesh, who recently returned from Israel where he inspected the new West Bank security wall. A similar barrier on India’s western border may be necessary, he says.
If it is true that some students vote for the SFI because it is perceived as the inevitable victor, some students back the ABVP just to protest the SFI. On election night, Rajnish, a Patna native studying Japanese, shrugs his shoulders and laughs when asked about his vote. “I have no option. I don’t like the ‘left’, so I support the ABVP”. Samir, a friend of Rajnish’s from Bhagalpur, huddles in a wool shawl and laments what he expects will be an ABVP defeat. “We’ve been unable to convince the girls on campus to vote for us. Most of them are from West Bengal and vote for the SFI”.
‘We’re here to study’
Between the close of polls at five o’clock on election day and the post-dinner rallies, the maroon tent is nearly empty. Candidates steal a few hours of sleep before the all-nighter or meet in private to make assessments. A few party organisers, including Kavita and Sunny, sit with groups of a half-dozen cadre as dhaba workers unpack trays of food between the tent and the counters’ building.
The NSUI has taken up position on the far left tonight in the tent, leaving AISA and SFI squeezed together in the middle. At 8.30 pm, no JNU students are on hand at the NSUI table, but a few national body representatives and Delhi University joint secretary Pankaj Kochar are sitting behind the table. Pankaj, who won his seat by an impressive 6,748 votes, slouches in a folding chair and says he does not want to discuss JNU politics. He came out tonight, he says, “to enjoy the election”, but his insights are limited to predicting a resounding NSUI victory; his attendance appears required. Facing Pankaj in another chair is Kuntal Krishna, the NSUI national spokesperson, who is eager to talk, though he sticks to platitudes about progressivism and secularism, offering a circular analysis on the elections.
“Why should JNU students elect Prem Chand president?”
“Because Prem Chand is the NSUI unit president”.
“But why should students support him?”
“Because he represents the ideology of NSUI”.
Kuntal, whose maternal grandfather was a Congress minister in Bihar in the seventies, dismisses charges from critics that the organisation has no guiding ideology and slips back into a discussion of progressivism, which he says is “not indulging in antisocial activities, like terrorism”. Behind Kuntal, Avantika Makan, national general secretary of NSUI and daughter of Delhi State Transport Minister Ajay Makan, concludes a mobile phone call, and the three of them briefly elaborate on NSUI’s national activities. Avantika mentions a recent visit she made to Cotton College in Guwahati, and Krishna says that he has just returned from Allahabad University, where students voted in favour of the NSUI. All three say they plan to run for office as Congress candidates after completing their studies, and Pankaj casually mentions that he will stand for the DUSU presidency in 2004. Where will they be in twenty years? Kuntal and Avantika suggest perhaps the Lok Sabha; Pankaj goes as far as to suggest prime ministership!
The NSUI has not won a councillor or central panel seat in a JNU election for a dozen years, and it lacks the organisational base on campus of the three other major groups. But is has a stronger national organisation— NSUI student unions are in power in several universities in the states and since many JNU students previously studied at Delhi University in the north of the city, the NSUI’s rout of the ABVP there is expected to bolster the organisation’s profile here in the south Delhi campus. Also, political heavy-weights like Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit visited campus the Thursday before the election to rally support for the NSUI.
While the ABVP and ‘left’ groups rely, respectively, on rhetoric about “Paki Marxism” and “communal fascism”, the NSUI paints itself as a clean-cut organisation eschewing extremism. Printed political art is banned at JNU, so groups produce gigantic hand-made creations; in the Teflas canteen, an ABVP placard denounces the rape of women in CPI-M-ruled West Bengal, while next to it a colourful AISA design shows a female figure in cubic repose above the World Social Forum motto “Another World is Possible”. At the front of the canteen, on a wall visible from the student union door, is a poster with one of NSUI’s central messages: “We are here to study, not to fight”. On it, gangs of ABVP and SFI students square off with lathis (cane sticks), while below NSUI supporters sit on the ground clutching their heads.
Praveen Kumar Nayak, an NSUI councillor candidate in the School of Social Sciences, from Chattisgarh, epitomises the conscientious image his group tries to project. A first-year student from a Congress family, on election night he stands at the back left of the tent, shaking hands with supporters and conferring with other NSUI candidates. He has a businesslike air slightly incongruent with the night’s blend of festivity and combativeness, his starched collared shift tucked neatly into pressed khaki pants, a Nokia mobile phone in his left hand put to use every few minutes for short, punchy conversations. “The NSUI has challenged the SFI, and now they’re mentally threatened by us”, Praveen says, but he’s also mindful that weakening the SFI could help other rival parties. “Inteshar and Mona have worked hard”, he concedes, referring to AISA’s presidential and general secretary candidates. Ashik, a soft-spoken NSUI backer from Kerala, is more direct than Praveen. “SFI will win”, he shrugs.
Prem Chand, NSUI’s presidential candidate, sits cross-legged at the centre of two dozen supporters, slouched over in a shawl and chatting with a fellow candidate as the cadre chant about a predicted victory. The campaign is over now, and Prem is trying to manage expectations. “I didn’t perform well in my [presidential debate] speech”, he says. “The AISA and Samajwadi Party candidates’ speeches were issue-related and ideological. I’m not a strong orator”. In the next NSUI circle sits Batti Lal Bairwa, one of the former SFI-JNUSU presidents who joined the Congress. Batti, who hails from a dalit family in Rajasthan, says he grew disillusioned with the CPI-M because of its limited reach throughout the country. “The Congress fights against saffronisation. The CPI-M talks about fighting saffronisation, but it can’t fight it outside of three states”.
A new day
At nine on Tuesday morning, sixteen hours after voting ended, the crowd has dispersed and Kavita and Sunny are reviewing the polling information thus far released at their respective tables. Behind them, a few dozen students wrapped in blankets sleep on the ground amidst a sea of tattered campaign fliers. There is no news yet of results from the central panel, but the councillor seat picture is coming into focus: SFI held three seats in the School of International Studies, the remaining two going to AISA and NSUI, and the School of Languages delivered all four of its seats to SFI. At 60 percent, voter turnout is within a percentage point of last year’s.
Tuesday morning is partially occupied by the fallout from a late-night confrontation between SFI and NSUI supporters. Jayant, a first-year student with no ties to JNU’s political formations, says that SFI and NSUI supporters hoisting flags pushed into each other during a shouting match around two-thirty, and the shoving led to a few punches being thrown; a female student left with a black eye. Jayant, who had been excited about the election, says that next year he won’t vote, as “these groups aren’t interested in ideology, they’re interested in money and power”. On Wednesday, 22 October, Madhumita Chakraborty, the NSUI unit convener, calls on members at a public meeting to “support the organisation” in the event that sexual harassment charges stemming from the incident are filled against NSUI rank-and-file. At week’s end, the ABVP capitalises on the incident, declaring in a public release that, “the SF1 determinedly upheld their legacy of lumpenism and grappled with the NSU1 with all its ferocity”.
By five in the evening, although the vote total has not been finalised, the electoral trends are clear: Rohit, Ena and Murtaza Ali Athar, three SFI candidates for the central panel, are safely ahead, and the AISA general secretary candidate Mona Das will claim a seat in the next union. But the losers are not inconsolable. Prem Chand, the defeated Congress presidential candidate, stands on the NSUI table, rallying a group of supporters to the cry “March on Prem Chand!” and Ashok Sharma, the ABVP’s spokesperson, says that this year’s returns put his party in a strong position for 2004. “Next year we’ll sweep the polls”, he predicts. “There will be a divide in the ‘left’ and we’ll sweep in. Mona Das’ victory will help us out”.
The returns hold mixed lessons for each of the parties. The SFI is satisfied that it maintained power, taking 16 councillor seats on top of its central panel majority, but, as a post-election statement puts it, “it will be our effort in the coming times to rectify our shortcomings and live up to the expectations of the student community”. AISA perhaps gained the most, winning a central panel seat and two councillorships with its small base. However, other than Mona, its central panel candidates failed poorly. For the NSUI, it is disappointing to have claimed only one councillor seat, but the organisation’s vote total gained significantly, finishing second in presidential polling after garnering only 8 percent in 2002. The ABVP, which saw its share of the central panel vote continue to drop, perhaps fared worst in the elections, but at least it can take solace in its grip on the ‘safe’ councillor seats in schools where the SFI presence is weak or absent.
The Friday after the elections, Diwali eve, Sunny Dutta, dressed in jeans and a black leather jacket, is back on campus to meet with ABVP students. The ABVP made a disappointing showing in the elections, he says, because of internal problems in the campus unit—a group of dissidents felt alienated and failed to bring out the vote. He praises Mona Das for her well-run campaign, and, appearing to change his opinion on covert left collusion, says that the message from this year’s election is that students vote for people, not parties, hence why AISA’s vote-take on the central panel ranged from 291 to 1064. He says that he will spend the next six months dividing his time between revitalising the JNU ABVP unit, building up the BJP’s World Youth Council Against Terrorism, and organising non-political programmes with embassies in Delhi.
Praveen Nayak, the NSUI councillor candidate, is likewise optimistic about next year despite having polled only 127 votes this time around. “People at JNU have accepted that NSUI is an alternative to the extreme left and right”, he says, and notes that a fellow NSUI councillor candidate in the School of Social Sciences lost by only 11 votes. “We weren’t strong before the elections, but now we are”.
Members of all parties note that Lok Sabha elections will occur next year, and look forward to the coat-tail effects of a successful campaign by their parent bodies. Intuitively, the ABVP and NSUI stand the most to gain, as neither the CPI-M nor the CPI-ML are likely to play a determining role in the 2004 national elections. If the ABVP recaptures the JNU presidential post after a four-year drought, it. If the NSUI wins, it would suggest that the national political scene characterised by a BJP-Congress divide has finally seeped into this insulated university.