Money, muscle and caste - DUSU poll can be mistaken for any other in India

Over the years, shakti pradarshan exercises have become the most defining marker of the elections.

 |  7-minute read |   08-09-2016
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On a terribly humid August afternoon a couple of weeks ago, the traffic on the ever-bustling Sudhir Bose Marg of Delhi University’s North Campus came to an inordinately long halt. This was because of a long procession of student volunteers hopping and chanting to the names of the aspirants for the upcoming Delhi University Students Union (DUSU) elections.

Anyone alien to Delhi University’s political pulse would have mistaken the parade for a major election rally since it included dozens of luxury SUVs and sedans - plastered with posters all over.

As I was walking past, I soon got a glimpse of the star of the campaign in question, popped up through the sun-roof of a snazzy Hummer. This was Priyanka Chaawri of the RSS-affiliated Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) waving to the foot-soldiers marching alongside and perhaps also to an imagined public, in a manner reminiscent of a Mamata Banerjee or Mayawati.

Unlike the two politicians who would generally campaign for themselves through appearances like this, Priyanka was holding a placard that carried the name of one Nikhil Yadav - who doesn’t appear on the ABVP’s final list of candidates.

Later in the day, one could witness many such processions rolling out on the same street with varying intensity. Chanting volunteers, upscale cars, fliers and pamphlets bearing candidates’ names were common features.

Notably, the Lyngdoh Committee of 2006 prohibits the use of loudspeakers and vehicles for the purpose of canvassing in student body elections. On enquiry, Manan Mishra, an associate of an ABVP ticket-hopeful who couldn’t make it finally, said of that day: “That was the day of shakti pradarshan (show of strength). The strength and glamour of the procession plays an important role in the selection of a candidate by the organisation.”

Over the years, such shakti pradarshan exercises have become the most defining marker of DUSU elections. Apart from the ABVP, the other prominent player National Students Union of India (NSUI) of the Congress has also indulged in similar extravaganza to woo the supposedly impressionable student voters.

Despite the binding guidelines of the Lyngdoh Committee, massive abuse of money power is rampant in the elections as several loopholes in rules are exploited by candidates and organisations alike. For example, while it is clearly stated that a candidate is entitled to spend a maximum of Rs 5,000, there is no mention in the guidelines on how much a party can spend.

This allows organisations like NSUI and ABVP to put up huge hoardings and banners, sometimes even with candidates’ names, at prominent locations on the campus before elections.

Their scant regard for the Lyngdoh directives is also evident in blatant violation of another key code of conduct - the use of printed material during campaigning. Indeed, in the run up to the DUSU elections, the main streets and most colleges in the North Campus are littered with fliers, pamphlets and posters of different candidates.

The elephant in the room is however the not-so-secret distribution of freebies just prior to the elections, which ranges from cash to liquor to even movie tickets, depending on the target crowd.

A former student from Hindu College unwilling to be named testifies: “We were informed by an NSUI worker last year that the organisation would like to help us for our college elections in return for our support to their candidates in DUSU elections. After a brief meeting with a couple of their leaders at their office, a deal was struck and we were given around Rs 10,000 in cash and around 100 PVR movie tickets."

dusu-pti-embed_090816125343.jpg Many have decided not to vote in the election of September 9 this year, while others plan to press the None of The Above button. (Photo credit: PTI) 

The freebies-distribution is mostly routed through a careful network of college-level leaders variously housed at select college hostels, paying guest (PG) accommodations and rented apartments in the north and south campuses of the university.

The entire elections are fought through this sort of a nexus as students are more effectively approachable by leaders involved in different college elections held on the same day.

The All India Students Association (AISA), usually the third key player in the DUSU polls, however, appears to stand in consistent opposition to this enormous show of wealth.

“DUSU polls are contested not just by the NSUI and ABVP, but by Congress and the BJP-RSS themselves. Crores of rupees are spent by candidates independently as well as by the organisation collectively. This is basically a sort of investment to step into national politics. Once a candidate wins the DUSU election, he/she is bound to get a ticket from their respective parties,” Madhurima Kundu, the organisation’s presidential candidate for 2014, puts it in perspective.

Much in the fashion of any Vidhan Sabha or Lok Sabha elections, the DUSU election does not end with money power alone.

Over the years, it has acquired a reputation for electoral violence too. Only last year, the candidates of ABVP, NSUI and the new student body of AAP were engaged in violent clashes right before the polls, with candidates of one organization accusing their counterparts of attempting to smash open their skulls.

In addition, a quick look at the social backgrounds of the DUSU candidates of the last few years will reveal an unfailing dominance of the Jat and Gujjar communities, sometimes along with the Yadavs, in almost all major panels.

Not everyone can aspire to become a candidate at the first place and those who cannot make the final cut within their respective organisations more often than not switch to another in exchange of cash and kind.

A disgruntled associate of a rejected ABVP ticket-aspirant angrily reacts: “Our leader has been working for the organisation since his school days. Still his efforts were not recognised. This is unfair and we are hurt. We are now open to working with even NSUI if they show us due regard.”

Also what is unfailingly conspicuous in this ticket-allotment process is the token representation of female candidates. The usual ratio is three males to one female.

In all fairness, the DUSU elections - with its casteist and patriarchal logic, brazen display of money and muscle – is after all a microcosm of electoral politics in most of northern India.

Thus, despite all the glitter and frenzy, it is revealing that these elections have been registering significantly low polling rates for the last few years - it stands in an abysmally low range of 40 to 45 percentage of an electorate extending well beyond a hundred thousand students.

Meenakshi Baruah of Kirori Mal College says: “The decision to vote should come out of one’s own free will. Most students are however mollycoddled or either influenced through peer pressure to vote for undeserving candidates. Such unnecessary and inconvenient politics should strongly be opposed in the university.”

She is among many who have decided not to vote in the election of September 9 this year while many others have decided to press the NOTA (None of The Above) button which has been introduced for the first time.

Such a move alone may not, however, suffice to increase participation of students in the DUSU poll. As Motilal Nehru College's Aditya Pathak, one of the many disenchanted students who look for a major transformation in the very political culture of the university, says, “Change is needed and especially what I want to see is a standard level of student politics, which means no hooliganism and capital power. It should be merit-based. The candidates’ overall background and career should be looked into before one can actually contest.”

Demands for a change may vary across different quarters but a unifying current in most of these voices seems to long for an end to the "money and muscle" phenomena that has plagued the elections in all these years.

Until then, the DUSU elections will continue to represent more of the larger electoral character of the country rather than a democratic exercise centred on students’ interests.

Also read: Why ABVP has stronger chances to win JNUSU elections

Also read: Why admission to DU is not worth the craze


Ayan Sharma Ayan Sharma

The writer is a graduate in history from Hindu College and a freelance journalist.

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