Unlike the radical environs of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi, little is ever expected of its spatial and ideological neighbour, the University of Delhi (DU). The latter is only an ideological neighbour in a manner of speaking, preferring to remain — and not necessarily out of choice — impenetrable to the culture of dialogue that the JNU has prided itself on for decades.
If such a view were orthodoxy, elections to the students’ unions of the two universities have unsettled this rectitude. Elections to the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union (JNUSU) saw a rather predictable electoral victory of the Left alliance — comprising the All India Students’ Association (AISA), Students’ Federation of India (SFI) and the Democratic Students’ Federation (DSF).
It’s the difficult truth, lost though it appears in the euphoria of triumph, that the JNU will now find it difficult, if not impossible, to reprise the years when electoral choice was, by and large, mediated between different shades of Left; when the Congress’ National Students’ Union of India (NSUI) was the imagined adversary, perhaps even Right-wing.
The Akhila Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) is now the second largest political force in JNU, assailable only by the collective electoral might of the Left. Nevertheless, it is to JNU’s credit that its electoral process forces even ABVP to surrender its primary political imagination of assertive violence, and the easy refuge of muscle and money, compelling the configuration of liberal-democratic means as the manifesto. It is for this reason that the JNU remains unassailable, even if its Left-wing political formations, in alliance or otherwise, see wavering electoral fortune.
The culture of the University of Delhi, serious comparative accounts of it with the JNU notwithstanding, is a different political organism; it is, at times, rigid as dogma, if one is to consider the recent electoral supremacy of the ABVP in the university, and at other times, as the DUSU election tells us, amenable to taking inexplicable guises.
Of the union’s four executive positions, the NSUI’s Rocky Tuseed was elected president with 16,299 votes and Kunal Sehrawat vice-president with 16,431 votes. ABVP’s Mahamedhaa Nagar was elected general secretary with 17,156 votes and Uma Shankar joint-secretary with 16,691 votes. In a stunning development with wide-ranging implications, the ‘None of the Above’ (NOTA) choice gathered 5,162 votes for the presidential position, and 7,684, 7,891 and 9,028 votes for the vice-presidential, secretarial, and joint-secretarial positions respectively.
The political and electoral culture of the university, through which the results would have to be analysed, are conspicuous by their absence — elections are fought, never contested, and the tussle is often, if not invariably, an appeal to the pleasures of the essential: Alcohol, gastronomic delights, money, muscle and the brotherhood of caste.
In assessments of celebration, particularly those touting this outcome as a righteous and crushing defeat of the ABVP, it is imperative to be mindful of this reality, given that it has ensured the ABVP’s stronghold on two of the four executive positions. The electoral culture of the university, coupled with the ABVP’s persistent appeal to the nationalism and anti-nationalism of its voters, is the only rationale of its sustenance.
And yet, the DUSU elections of 2017, in themselves, were far from unexceptional. In what would be considered inconceivable to anyone versed in the electoral ethos of the university, NSUI emerged triumphant on critical presidential and vice-presidential positions. That this victory was narrow, as is being argued, ignores that it was a victory nevertheless.
In February 2017, Umar Khalid and Shehla Rashid were invited to the Cultures of Protest conference at the capital’s Ramjas College. The mere mention of this invitation inspired grotesque violence as students and activists of ABVP unleashed a wave of patriotic fury on the participants, declared them anti-national, and therefore undeserving of their liberties.
The participants included students and teachers from across the university, braving unprecedented assault and a fervent pelting of brick and stone, emerged in a protest against the gundaagardi of the ABVP, and in that, an assault on the very idea of the university.
Even if sympathy for Umar Khalid and Shehla Rashid found little resonance, an ethical resonance against the violence and hooliganism of ABVP garnered considerable appeal, appearing as a recurring motif in the campaigns of all political formations in the election — a call, in every lucid word, to save the university.
It is undeniable that the electoral outcome is a consequence of this resonance, but that the ABVP’s adversaries failed to galvanise the sentiment is rather unescapable. The disillusionment and discontentment with the ABVP expressed itself in a thunderous support for the choice of the NOTA, and as it appears, a narrow victory for the only liberal alternative in the university, the NSUI.
A programmatic stigmatisation of the Left and an utter inability to convert discontentment into an anti-ABVP ideological position renders the ABVP yet unassailable, even as the opposition faltered to gather, further giving way to a mushrooming of independent candidacy in the election.
To celebrate the mandate as a triumph of the NSUI, let alone the Congress, is a travesty of imagination. It is only in addressing the failure of the opposition to become a counter-public that an ideological challenge and a political culture in the university can be carved.