Deconstructing The JNU Election: How The Left’s Victory Masks Its Decline In Campus Politics

Abhinav Prakash Singh

Sep 14, 2016, 01:16 PM | Updated 01:16 PM IST

Jawaharlal University Campus (Ganga Sahay Meena/Wikimedia Commons)
Jawaharlal University Campus (Ganga Sahay Meena/Wikimedia Commons)
  • The celebration of the decimation of ABVP in JNU Election 2016 is much ado about nothing.
  • Despite not having a strong standing in JNU in the past, ABVP’s vote share has actually increased significantly in this election.
  • From a careful reading of the election, it becomes clear that JNU is on course to becoming a post-Left pluralist campus of diverse voices.
  • The results of the student body election at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) saw the left-unity alliance of All India Students Association (AISA) and Students’ Federation of India (SFI) sweeping all the four central panel seats of the president, vice-president, general secretary and joint secretary and most of the councillor seats.

    The results have been presented as a rout of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), a defeat of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) game plan to shut down JNU and a victory of the progressive, democratic forces. But this triumphalism only masks the deeper trends in JNU campus politics.

    The campus has witnessed a steady decline in the appeal of left-wing politics over the past several years. Several factors are responsible for it. At one level, it reflects the worldwide trend of Communism or Socialism becoming a thoroughly discredited ideology. On the other hand, it reflects the changing socio-economic and political dynamic of post-reform India. At the campus level, the sharp decline in left-wing politics came about with the rise of AISA.

    It is because of this decline of the Left in JNU and the rise of alternative voices like that of the ABVP and Birsa Ambedkar-Phule Students’ Association (Bapsa) that the two dominant left parties, AISA and SFI, were forced to forge an electoral alliance this time around, to avoid a certain defeat. The coming together of the arch enemies, AISA and SFI, and the outside support of the AISF and ultra-left groups itself is a political defeat of the Left. Not only have these parties compromised their political positions, but in a campus where elections used to be an intra-left affair, this fear of losing elections itself shows who has lost ground in the JNU.

    The stated purpose of the left-unity alliance was to stop the right-wing ABVP from coming to power and to respond to the central government’s alleged attempts to shut down JNU. The campaign was run along the two lines of stoking parochial paranoia of ‘Stand with JNU’ by isolating the ‘traitors’ (i.e., those who disagreed with the anti-India slogans of 9 Feb) and to preserve the ‘democratic space of debate and dissent’. It is amusing that those who decry allegiance to the country as a regressive concept called nationalism were demanding unconditional allegiance to the JNU. And they were doing this by hyphenating themselves with the JNU and, in the process, crushing the pluralist voices in the campus. The whole propaganda machine of the alliance was geared towards creating a mass paranoia of ‘hyper-nationalism’ and towards what is often jokingly called ‘People’s Democratic Republic of JNU’. But just like they argue that there is not one India but many, there is not just one JNU but many. To say ‘We are JNU, Stand with JNU’ is nothing but an act of establishing a hegemony and denying democratic space to others.

    Expectedly, the argument failed to cut much ice with the students. And the celebration of the decimation of ABVP in JNU is much ado about nothing. First, because ABVP has hardly ever been strong in JNU, and nor is it the ruling dispensation. The reality is that even though ABVP lost almost all the posts (barring a few), its vote share has improved. The party which used to get 500-600 votes before is now touching a figure of 1,300+ in the central panel; 1,000 votes for ABVP is the new normal.

    This is a significant gain for the right wing in the campus. Barring the School of Social Sciences, ABVP now polls as many votes as any of the major left parties. This year too in one of the largest schools, the School of Languages, ABVP garnered 333 votes for the post of president while the combined strength of all the left parties secured 656 votes. And this is when the votes from the Arabic, Persian and Urdu centres, i.e., some 400 votes, go en-block to the Left, especially AISA.

    In the School of Sciences, ABVP polled 341 votes while left-unity could only get 183 votes out of 793 polled this year. Clearly, the aim of the left-unity to decimate ABVP did not materialise. What it did achieve, however, was to prevent the possible victory of ABVP on two central panel seats of vice-president and general secretary. The ABVP lost several councillor posts only because of this; otherwise, its vote share has actually increased significantly from the previous years.

    But the biggest blow the Left suffered was that it completely lost the political debate due to the emergence of the Ambedkarite party, Bapsa. In its two years of existence, Bapsa has deconstructed the Left using the same tools and terminology which Left always used against its opponents. Most importantly, Bapsa made the question of social representation in the political and power structures of the campus the central issue in JNU. The very agency of the Left to speak for the Dalits, Adivasis, etc., has now been questioned. This has pushed the Left into a major crisis of legitimacy, which it was able to tide over simply by avoiding a direct confrontation with Bapsa and focusing exclusively on the theme of ‘JNU under attack’ to unite the students, using age-old tactics of creating a fear psychosis.

    In class-to-class campaigning, the Left openly made fabricated claims - RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat says eating chowmein causes rapes, ABVP will stop girls (who are now in the majority in JNU) on campus from wearing jeans. Among Muslim students, it was the same old notion of ‘Islam in danger’ and that ABVP will stop namaz on the campus if it comes to power. These were deliberate lies peddled by the Left as it was unable to respond to the political questions thrown towards it. Nor did it have any list of achievements to show for last year, as outgoing President Kanhaiya Kumar spent most his time out of campus, demanding lands for Dalits in Gujarat, never mind that he has not demanded it for his hometown and the hub of communists in Bihar-Begusarai. Never mind that just a short distance away is the ABVP-dominated Delhi University, which is much higher on the fashion scale than the deliberate choice of drab clothes and ragged jholas of the JNU comrades.

    The intellectual and political bankruptcy of the Left was thoroughly exposed in its reaction to the challenge by Bapsa. To the pointed political debate they started, the only response of the Left was that Bapsa is a casteist, reactionary party. It can be easily noticed that this was simply a variant of labelling its opponents casteist, sanghis who are unworthy of any engagement. Among the other backward class (OBC) students, Left parties campaigned as to why OBCs would vote Dalits when Dalits harass OBCs when they come to power, like in the case of Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh.

    Vigorous attempt of demonisation was launched against Bapsa presidential candidate Rahul Punaram Sonpimple. While Rahul, who comes from the culture of vibrant Dalit movements of Maharashtra, consistently hammered them on their political contradictions. Bapsa forcefully questioned the ‘Stand with JNU’ campaign. It turned the table on the Left by drawing a parallel between save ‘Gaumata’ and save JNU. What is so sacred about both, it asked.

    To the attacks on Bapsa as being anti-Muslim and for weakening the struggle against oppression by Umar Khalid, Rahul’s response is worth quoting:

    A careful reading of your (open) letter emphasises two major aspects, firstly, you mention about the caste practices and untouchability within the Muslims and secondly, you write about the unified identity of the Muslims and victimisation of the community, irrespective of these differences. But you used the first argument to qualify the second argument where you transform yourself from the oppressor to the oppressed. This tendency of regarding religion as a monolithic whole is to be found even among the RSS, which acknowledges caste difference merely for the sake of it but presents Hindu as a monolithic identity, which has been oppressed by the Muslims. Here, I can turn the table around and say that you are making the similar kind of argument. Sadly, in your letter you have not highlighted a single case of caste discrimination practised by the upper-caste Muslims against the lower-caste Muslim, about which I spoke in my speech.

    It came as no wonder that Rahul scored 1,545 votes for the post of president to the 1,954 of the left-unity alliance of the total 5,183 votes polled. But it is highly significant that most Muslim students did not vote for Rahul. In private talks, many were openly contemptuous about voting for the Dalit-led party despite the high-octane Facebook status of Dalit-Muslim unity.

    Clearly, the elitist campus time pass that left-wing politics and discourse is was pinned to the ground, and seeing no escape, the Left had to rely on mobilising communal and parochial votes to sail through the elections. It relied heavily on the orthodox Muslim votes from Arabic, Persian & Urdu centres. Appeals were issued to the Muslim students to cancel their train tickets for the upcoming Eid al-Adha and vote to defeat the ‘right wing’.

    The Left, as usual, had no hesitation in allying with the Islamic right to mobilise votes. But besides this, the left-unity also stoked the parochial sentiments of its Kerala and Bengal cadre on linguistic lines. This tactic did work, but it also had an interesting effect in that there was a huge margin between the votes secured by the two alliance partners. The Kerala and Bengali votes, which form the bulk of the SFI votes, did not go to the alliance candidates from AISA, who came from the non-elite background of the Hindi belt. These votes secured on the regressive parochial and communal grounds form the basis of the electoral victory of the left-unity alliance, which we are supposed to believe is the victory of ‘progressivism’.

    The future of JNU politics, as well as campus politics at large, is interesting. An often-ignored factor is changing demography in university campuses after the economic reforms were introduced and the implementation of the OBC reservation in 2006. Between 2005-06 and 2014-15, the number of Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) students have increased from 699 and 370 to 1,201 and 643 respectively. In percentage terms, the rise is from 19 percent to 22 percent.

    Students selected under the OBC category now account for more than 30 percent of all students. Together, the students from the non-Dvija castes now constitute around 70 percent of the students in the campus. This has shaken the monopoly of the Left, which was an exclusive club of those from the elite families of the upper savarna castes. JNU politics has become more linked with the issues and concerns of these students than what happens in far-away Venezuela. Social contradictions of the Indian society has displaced, in the ivory tower, Marxist theorising about class struggle. In fact, Marx, Lenin, Mao have all but disappeared from campus discourse. They have been replaced by Savitribai Phule, Ambedkar, Savarkar and Vivekananda. Birsa Munda has replaced Fidel Castro as a symbol of resistance. No longer does one hear the slogan of ‘Naxalbari Lal Salam’. It has been replaced with ‘Jai Bheem, Jai Bharat’. In response, the Left too has been trying to appropriate these symbols, especially Ambedkar, by changing ‘Lal Salam’ to ‘Jai Bheem, Lal Salam’ after decades of ridiculing Ambedkar and also transforming overnight into ‘constitutional patriots’ after decades of calling openly to overthrow the “bourgeois constitution”.

    The changing demography has fuelled the rise of both ABVP and, recently, Bapsa. The ABVP in JNU itself represents diverse sections of the society and has a very high number of OBCs and SCs contesting from its platform. Both ABVP and Bapsa represent real social constituencies. They are rooted in the reality of the socio-political situation of India while the Left is a rootless wonder, a campus time pass.

    But the pressure from below has now begun to reorient campus politics to represent the real democratic forces and the aspirations of the country, even as the traditional elites rally around the Left to protect their niche turf in academia. But even there they have been reduced from ‘Kranti’ to expressing solidarity with various autonomous discourses and movements.

    But what is sure is that JNU is on course to finally becoming a post-Left pluralist campus of diverse democratic voices, where next time, if there is a ‘debate’ on nationalism, it will not be a monologue.

    Abhinav Prakash Singh is an Assistant Professor at the University of Delhi.

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