New Delhi: The decisive mandate against the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, student wing of the RSS, in the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union election held recently is being seen as a clear political message by the academic community to the Modi government. The right-wing student group’s significant loss of ground to the Congress-backed National Students Union of India (NSUI) and the leftist All India Students Association (AISA) in its stronghold – Delhi University – in the concurrently held student council polls also points to the brewing negative sentiment in university spaces against the saffron dispensation at the Centre.
Both the JNU and DU elections were keenly watched as they were conducted in the backdrop of substantial education reforms initiated by former HRD minister Smriti Irani, a concerted attack on dissenting students by the Sangh parivar, a clampdown on free speech in universities and the ABVP’s jingoistic campaign to brand all critical politics in campuses as anti-national.
Earlier this year, the #ShutDownJNU campaign started by supporters of the Sangh parivar became a part of national debates after JNU students Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya were arrested on charges of sedition. Several other JNUSU office bearers were also targeted by the government for challenging the ABVP’s attack on organisers of a public meeting on Kashmir on campus. Since then, the nationalism versus sedition debate has had a polarising political effect on India, with the Sangh parivar articulating all public interest issues in this binary.
Political observers had commented at the time that the Sangh parivar was attempting to consolidate its electoral base by branding dissenting people as anti-national. This strategy was also used to cover its anti-minority activities and alleged human rights abuses across the country, they said.
By virtue of being situated in the national capital, the left-liberal sections of both JNU and DU had occupied a central position in a fledgling students movement around a variety of issues that were critical of the Modi government. In this context, both the BJP and the ABVP may not have anything positive to take from JNUSU and DUSU results.
In fact, the results point out two significant political trends that are gradually shaping up under the Modi government. And university campuses have become the flagbearers of these two developments.
Consolidation of the Left; ABVP’s worst ever performance
First, the JNUSU and DUSU results show that the Leftist student organisations have managed to re-energise themselves under an anti-student environment created by what they perceive as ‘a fascist government’. JNU has always been a Leftist bastion, where much of the political debate happened between many factions of the Left parties. However, for the first time, two traditional left-wing rivals – AISA, the student’s wing of the Communist Party of India (ML-Liberation), and the Students Federation of India (SFI), attached to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – contested the JNUSU polls, in an alliance they named ‘Left Unity’.
The call for greater Left unity against a rising Sangh parivar was first given last year by Kanhaiya, who was later elected as the JNUSU president. But that unity materialised after a sustained campaign in JNU against the BJP. Although the All India Students Federation (AISF), the student outfit of the Communist Party of India (CPI) – Kanhaiya belongs to this party – were not a part of this alliance owing to the lack of a consensual candidate, it extended its support to the alliance, whose primary principle was to decimate the ABVP.
And decimate it did. Barring the Sanskrit centre in JNU, ABVP lost in all the departments and struggled to retain even its traditional voters, finishing with the worst-ever performance in recent history. After a gap of nearly 15 years, the ABVP had bounced back in JNU last year by landing the joint secretary’s post in JNUSU polls.
Many observers viewed the ABVP’s remarkable performance last year in a Leftist bastion like JNU as continuation of the national political mood, which had elected Narendra Modi as prime minister. This had led the Left parties to introspect about their failures and the need to unite to stave off the ABVP. With the Left uniting against the backdrop of an unprecedented attack on JNU and winning all the posts, including those of councillors in various departments, it is clear that the ABVP benefitted not just by the political mood outside but also from a divided secular opposition. While ABVP finished second in terms of total votes, the Left asserted its political primacy in the campus.
In DU too, the NSUI, which has lost the last two elections, bounced back by winning the joint secretary’s post. While the ABVP managed to retain the top three posts in the council, including that of the president, its vote shares have drastically fallen. In 33 out of 40 colleges in DU, the NSUI has claimed to have won, sending shockwaves to the ABVP.
DUSU elections has always reflected a strong tendency towards ‘money and muscle’ politics. As a result, parties like the NSUI and the ABVP, which are flushed with money, have remained predominant. However, in the last two years, the leftist AISA has created a strong presence in DU. It finished third in the council elections, securing more than 20% of the total votes polled. Unlike the ABVP and NSUI, AISA has successfully taken up student issues of accommodation, tuition fees and education reforms.
It is quite apparent that a strong opposition to the Sangh parivar in campuses is gradually becoming stronger by the day, thanks to what many students call the ‘authoritarian and undemocratic’ ways of the BJP and the ABVP. In many ways, the JNUSU elections resembled the last Bihar assembly elections where Janata Dal (United) and Rashtriya Janata Dal let off their traditional rivalry and united against the BJP. Never has there been a situation where a single party has united its opposition this fast. This trend may force the BJP to do some thinking about its political methods in near future.
The second trend that was clearly visible in this year’s student council elections is the emergence of an identity-based alliances, spearheaded primarily by Dalits. Rohith Vemula’s death at the University of Hyderabad earlier this year precipitated a strong protest movement by the student community, with reverberations across campuses like JNU and DU. Incidents like the flogging of Dalit cattle skinners in Una and the subsequent justification by BJP leaders like Raja Singh, the demolition of Ambedkar Bhawan in Mumbai and derogatory remarks against Bahujan Samaj Party’s Mayawati by UP BJP leader Dayashankar Singh have further consolidated Dalits against the Sangh parivar, the reflections of which could be seen in JNUSU election.
While the JNUSU election saw a remarkable performance by the two-year-old outfit Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association (BAPSA), which finished second for the post of president and garnered more than 3,000 votes, the ABVP also saw a large section of backward caste cadres deserting the party. An ABVP member told The Wire, “A large section of our backward caste support did not vote for us.” The ‘backward-forward’ schism was felt within the party, especially after the recent widespread Dalit protests, when three office bearers of the campus unit of the party resigned in protest against the #ShutDownJNU campaign. More recently, the vice-president of the party also resigned saying that the ABVP catered only to upper-caste feudal interests.
Despite the fact that BAPSA pitched itself against the united Left formation, it made its presence felt. However, in the ideologically-charged JNU, it had to face the criticism that it equated both the Left and the Right in catering to the upper caste interests. Its failure to spell out a long-term Ambedkarite alternative and inability to provide a scientific criticism of the Left finally dissuaded a large section of students from voting for the party, despite most secular opposition groups on campus supporting its call for ‘unity of the oppressed’. The cynicism it generated by solely talking about Dalit political representation in leadership positions and refusing to forge tactical solidarity with other groups is also said to be one of the reasons for its defeat.
Despite this aspect, both the Left and organisations like BAPSA were able to take forward the idea of a broad-based Dalit-Muslim alliance in the polls. Among the anti-BJP forces, identity-based alliances are being seen as a measure to defeat the Sangh parivar. The echo of such an alliance was heard constantly in the campaign both in JNU and DU.
Some of the strongest resistance to the BJP in the last two years has come from students, as well as from Dalits. In many instances, the BJP has been forced to take a step back as students flowed onto the streets, organising and agitating against the government for its alleged anti-student policies. A movement-based approach of the students – from both the Left and identity-based groups – instead of a rhetorical opposition, has led to a political environment in which the BJP had to constantly engage with universities. While Left parties have not been able to mount an anti-government movement in a long time, the last two years have seen strong, energetic movements by their student outfits. A great share of their success in student council elections could be a direct outcome of this.