Editor’s Note: Delhi University, one of India’s largest publicly-funded universities, went to polls on 12 September to elect new members into its central students’ body, the Delhi University Students Union (DUSU). This years polls registered a voter turnout of 42.8%, significantly higher than last year’s 36%. The National Students Union of India (NSUI), the student arm of the Indian National Congress (INC), took the lead this year by securing the decisive posts of President and Vice President, while the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Party (ABVP), student wing of the right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), bagged the posts of Secretary and Joint Secretary. The NSUI came back into the forefront after a hiatus of four years, replacing the ABVP from the two top posts. The ‘None of the Above’ or NOTA option, a standalone voting choice, came third after the two biggest parties in the campus.
Delhi University Student Union (DUSU) elections, conducted annually, are often one of the first interactions that a large, diverse body of students enrolled in Delhi University (DU) have with democratic processes, including voting. It acts an a training ground not just for student parties, but also for the voting students who become conscious of their own political preference and allegiances through the process. For this reason alone, the student union elections are extremely important and should be scrutinised accordingly.
— Congress (@INCIndia) September 13, 2017
For students, the idea of having a union is two-fold.
First, it provides a forum through which they can voice their opinions, grievances, and concerns to the university administration. Second, they expect the union to undertake certain welfare measures for the students like job fairs, conducive infrastructure, cheaper and comfortable hostels, lower fees, and smoother travel.
For political parties, the elections provide a convenient ground for testing the competence of the candidates. They also provide the next rung of leadership to the parent political parties of the respective student organisations and help them built a dedicated cadre of young volunteers.
Student Unions, in the past, have also played an important role in not just keeping the university administrations in check but also ensuring that critical democratic processes of this country don’t get derailed. It is important to know that the 1973 Navnirman Movement in Gujarat, which successfully spread its wings across the country, was led by students. It culminated in the imposition of emergency, under which student unions and organisations had to bear the brunt of repressive measures of the then Congress government of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
Most prominent among these disadvantaged student parties was the RSS-affiliated Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). In the capital, the then president of Delhi University Student Union, Arun Jaitley, was thrown in prison and his colleague Hemant Kumar Bishnoi was viciously tortured. In these protest and political processes, the unions often provided the next rung of able political leadership like Ajay Maken, who, in the my opinion, is currently the ablest person to run Delhi.
Over the years, however, it has been become increasingly evident that the student unions have failed to live up to expectations and have been a source of constant disappointment. For the purpose of this article, however, I will limit myself to the DUSU.
— ZeBa SaLiM ✨ (@neena_zeba) September 13, 2017
There are four problems with DUSU and its elections.
First, at the very outset, it quite evident that DU is now far too big to rely on a single students union. There are numerous articles in prominent newspapers on how the Lyngdoh Committee norms – instituted under apex court orders in 2006 to reform and regulate student body elections – are openly flouted during campaigning in the university. But, an easy case can be made for the impossibility of their implementation.
The union’s mandate covers about fifty colleges scattered all over Delhi, making some of the provisions impractical in implementation. Consider the clause mandating the use of only hand-made posters; even if we were to cover a college campus with 20 posters – still an inadequately low figure – that would mean 1000 handmade posters to begin with. This translates to the elections being rendered a yearlong, overly time-consuming exercise for the nominated candidates. The candidature is also subject to the internal election of the party at the end of the academic year. This seldom leaves time for preparations for central panel polls.
Adding to that is the fact that the Lyngdoh committee expects him/her to maintain 75% attendance while making such preparations. The committee also limits the expenditure per candidate to Rs. 5000, which is prima facie woefully inadequate for DU. One can argue that the mere cost of travelling to all the campuses with an entourage of supporters would exceed this cost. Bundled on top of this, is the conditionality that a candidate can only contest once, which means that there is no incentive to work for your promise due to the impossibility of getting rewarded for them.
Second, it is obvious that DUSU has consistently failed in countering wash-over academic reforms. Under NSUI (2012), the entire Four Year Undergraduate Programme (FYUP) was formulated and subsequently implemented. It had the potential of making the curriculum more academic and pragmatic for the job market, but the way it was implemented and envisioned made it appear like a horrible academic transplant that needed to be rejected. However, throughout its formulation, NSUI remained mute and barely bothered to look into its effects on the university colleges, which were understaffed and lacking in the required infrastructure. It was only due to the change of the government at the center in 2014 that the program was scrapped. Under ABVP, another such reform took place called the Choice-Based, Credit Based program (CBCS) and the jury is still out on how much such reforms was required. But, ABVP never bothered to look into its requirement and effects.
As for other promises, like comfortable and cheaper hostels and lower traveling cost, student unions have effectively no means to register protest than protest itself. They are not armed with the necessary powers to have a say in such matters, which means the fight is left to the students after the decision has already been taken, making them confrontational unions rather than constructive ones. Even then the protests are seldom led by unions and are often led by ad-hoc interest groups, like Pinjra-tod. The protests themselves are often ritualistic in nature, identified with a gathering in front of the Faculty of Arts Plaza, sometimes highlighted by a brief detention of the principal disruptor.
Third, the popularity of individual candidates is bound to be limited since DU is scattered throughout the city of Delhi. The parties have to rely on caste equations for vote banks. This means that the much-required demagoguery, charisma, and organisational skills for candidates are often overlooked for the caste and financial capacity. While previous candidates have often come from prestigious colleges, like Shri Ram College of Commerce, Hansraj College, Campus Law Center, etc., the present day candidates seem to emanate from schools like the Department of Buddhist Studies, which has in itself has turned into a refugee course for political aspirants. This means that the students often lose out on credible representation. It is reflected in the low turnout: 43% this year, as compared to an even lower 36% in 2016. NOTA came third in this year’s polls, thus affirming the disenchantment. This also means that in the future, the parent political parties will have to parachute leaders from public life as they did in the recent Delhi State assembly elections.
Fourth, the cost of elections right now outweighs its benefits. The clean-up costs of the campus post elections are tremendous. During elections, important signage of the university, streets, and campuses are plastered with posters that are then removed with added cost. The sheer amount of paper handouts the candidates flood the university campuses each day requires an extraordinary amount of effort to clean up. The prime tasks of DUSU in recent years has been limited to organising college fests, which is yet another unwanted drain of valuable resources of the university. Adding to that is the cost borne by the candidates on printing posters, distributing pamphlets and freebies, and the conducting and policing the elections. In return, the students don’t get even a fraction of the representation they deserve.
There are a few possible solutions to the problem.
The DUSU must be bifurcated into two separate unions for the north and the south campuses. Within this arrangement, an elected post of counsellor that allows coordination between the two unions must be instituted. Another could be, to slowly wither away the pan-university unions and give more teeth to the college unions mandated by the Lyngdoh Committee.
A radical proposition, however, is to have Vice-Chancellor (VC) elections, a mandated tenure, proportional voting to give equal weightage to the votes of students and professors, and a pre-poll debate among the possible candidates for the post,. This will curb the governmental interference while also limiting allegations of incompetency that are often slapped on the VC’s post by the professor and students alike. Apart from that minimum academic requirement, televised debates and the power to redraft the elections rules by the University can make the process more inclusive.
As for this year’s election, NSUI reaped the benefits of remaining silent and to a great extent feeble while taking a position on freedom of academic space. It is perhaps too early to judge but students are noticing the discomfort caused by an overdose of ideology, be it of the right or the left. While ABVP managed to capture two seats, AISA only performed well on the post of secretary, due to the ballot number being one and in part, due to its popularity. A verdict on the university atmosphere can only be judged if NSUI maintains the winning streak in the next two elections.
Anuj Aggarwal is a student of law at Delhi University’s Faculty of Law and former spokesperson for the Delhi University Students’ Union (DUSU).
Views expressed here are the author’s own, and does not reflect any editorial line.
Featured image credit: Parveen Negi [source: http://dailym.ai/2x1nniL]