Priyanka Chopra, Jurassic Park, Free Food: The Spectacle of DUSU Elections

A glaring disconnect with students and issues of education has forced NSUI and ABVP to turn DUSU polls into a game of money and muscle-flexing.

A glaring disconnect with students and issues of education has forced NSUI and ABVP to turn DUSU polls into a game of money and muscle-flexing. 

Credit: Akhil Kumar

Uber promo codes courtesy ABVP. Credit: Akhil Kumar

Eight years after the Supreme Court enforced the Lyngdoh committee’s recommendations on student union elections, the ‘money and muscle’ politics that it sought to curb continues unabashedly in universities. Delhi University (DU) seems to be leading the trend in either completely violating Lyngdoh norms or circumventing them cleverly.

In the run-up to the Delhi University Students’ Union (DUSU) polls this year, the students’ wings of Congress and BJP – National Students’ Union of India (NSUI) and Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) respectively – have flouted the university code of conduct for elections with impunity.

A long list of violations

To begin with, Lyngdoh norms bar candidates from using their photos for campaigns. However, Priyanka Chhawri, the vice-presidential candidate for the ABVP, has found an ingenious way to circumvent the rule. Posters and billboards carrying Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra’s photograph along with Chhawri’s ballot number ‘4’ populate every wall on DU’s north campus.

Similar posters carrying photos of different celebrities have appeared in previous elections as well. However, ABVP national convenor Saket Bahuguna dismissed allegations of the candidate flouting rules as mere ‘coincidence’. “The hoarding has to be read properly as it wishes all the best to Priyanka Chopra. The ‘4’ used in the hoarding is in SMS language, which means ‘for’. It must be one of the actor’s fan who has taken this medium to send her best wishes as she will be going for the 68th Emmy’s Award,” Bahuguna told the Hindustan Times.

Similar hoardings have also cropped up in the precincts of DU with actor Arjun Kapoor urging students to vote for ballot number 2. Incidentally, the NSUI candidate running for the vice-president’s post is one Arjun Chaprana, whose ballot number is ‘2’.

Likewise, several tea-stalls around DU have been serving tea to students in cups which sport Chhawri’s requests for people to join ABVP.

The DU code of conduct, prepared according to the Lyngdoh recommendations, caps the expense for canvassing at Rs 5000 for each candidate. However, the organisations are evidently spending much more than the allowed amount. For instance, NSUI has organised free pleasure trips to amusement parks like Jurassic Park and Fun and Food Village as well as expensive parties on the outskirts of Delhi for wooing students. “On September 7, the last day of campaign, all college canteens were free for students. NSUI had sponsored it. Today, McDonalds in Kamala Nagar (the closest market to DU’s north campus) has been made free by the Congress’ student wing,” said Nikita of Shyama Prasad Mukherji College for Women.

During this polling season, students have also been receiving WhatsApp messages regularly that ask to hire “girls for election event in DU.” The messages, whose sources remain unknown, mention phone numbers for interested people to contact the senders and promise a daily remuneration of Rs 800 for every volunteer.

While the DUSU polls are held to elect a central union, individual colleges elect their student councils separately. According to a DU student, both NSUI and ABVP support competing factions in all colleges and provide them with resources to contest college-level elections. “They circulate money, alcohol and freebies in colleges to get their support. This only shows how poor the reach of NSUI and ABVP is in colleges that they have to resort to such tactics to get their support,” said Dhanpal Singh,  a first year master’s student at Ramjas College.

One can only get an idea of the money spent in the DUSU elections by observing the number of printed posters that the two parties distribute and throw around the campus, leading to a great litter problem for the Safai Karmacharis (cleaning crew). “We have been raising the issue of paper wastage in every election. But the DU election officer has refused to take any actions against the two parties. Right next door to the Election Office, the NSUI and ABVP have painted the walls with posters,” said Anjali Serohi of Khalsa college.

According to the Lyngdoh norms, candidates’ posters can only be pasted on designated walls, individually referred to as a ‘wall of democracy’ around the campus. But the rule is openly flouted by the two parties.

The parties have also used minor loopholes in the rules to their advantage. For instance, printed posters for canvassing are not allowed according to the code of conduct. But ABVP and NSUI candidates circumvent this rule by distributing and pasting printed posters that contain minor spelling errors in their names. “So, the tea-cup publicising Priyanka Chhawri’s candidature has spelt her name wrongly as ‘Priyanka Chawarii’ to escape university action,” said Om Prakash, a first year master’s student at Satyawati college.

Breaking the crowd rule has also been a common violation in DUSU polls over the years. “Each NSUI candidate has canvassed in caravans of expensive cars like Hummers, Lamborghinis, Porsche. While the Lyngdoh bans a group of more than 4 people campaigning for a candidate, both ABVP and NSUI have mobilised more than 5000 outsiders to campaign for them,” said Rekha of Shaheed Bhagat Singh College.

An abundance of ‘A’s

It is widely believed by parties that candidates with names starting with the letter ‘A’ have a higher possibility of getting floating votes, as the candidates are alphabetically arranged in electronic voting machines. “The names that start with ‘A’ are always at the top. So many non-serious voters just press the top button,” said Niraj Kumar, an activist from All India Students Association (AISA), a students’ party which contests DUSU polls but has been campaigning against conduct violations for many years now.

Both NSUI and ABVP have been using this to their advantage. Their candidates have changed their names through affidavits just ahead of the election and have introduced the letter ‘A’ before their original names. Because of this, both NSUI and ABVP candidates have competed to introduce as many ‘A’s as prefixes in their names as possible, to get ahead of each other. For instance, the name of the current DUSU president elected on an ABVP ticket, is actually ‘AAA Satender Awana.’ However, the Delhi high court actually banned the practice in the case, AISA vs The Chief Election Officer (DUSU election 2014-15)The court noted that the practice to get the first ballot numbers gave certain candidates an undue advantage and violated the principle of equal opportunity in elections.

Despite the court’s intervention, several students complained that DU’s administration has been ineffective in controlling the ‘money and muscle’ brand of politics that is now firmly entrenched in campus life. Such lack of accountability explains the casualness of the campaign. “The fact of the matter is that even if it wants [to], DU’s election officers cannot hold the parties accountable. While Lyngdoh wanted to curb money and muscle politics in university elections, it nullified the links between the party and the administration. Only the candidate can be held responsible but he/she escapes action by using the loopholes of Lyngdoh norms to his/her advantage,” said Kumar whose organisation AISA has started a cleanliness drive against the poster-induced litter on campus.

Several prominent political leaders have used DUSU polls as their launch pad to get into mainstream politics, current union finance minister Arun Jaitley being one of them. This explains the high stakes for both NSUI and ABVP, whose candidates pursue higher political dreams. “DUSU elections also sends a political message in national politics because of the centrality of the university. It is an unfortunate truth that although DUSU is a student body election in which issues around education need to be debated and discussed, it has been reduced to a pomp and show, with [the] two biggest student parties leading the charge. Garnering votes, either by hook or crook, is all what matters to them,” said Sunny Kumar, a Ph.D student in the history department of DU and also an AISA activist.

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