Last Friday, in the calm, early hours of the morning, Delhi University prepared for Student Union elections. Stout men with heavy moustaches plastered competing posters across North Campus—ABVP Ankit Choudhary ABVP; NSUI Arun Hooda NSUI. Campaign members swarmed students at the campus metro station, passing out thousands of stamped cards with detailed instructions for the ballot. Rickshaw drivers accepted a few rupees to wear hand-painted shirts supporting various candidates. Hundreds of policemen in light blue camouflage—armed with rifles and batons—blocked off the streets. The candidates stared themselves in the mirror as they tucked their white shirts into their blue jeans, the famously auspicious outfit for Delhi University Student Union (DUSU) candidates. Students were advised to stay out of the streets.
The next day, election officials announced a sweep by the youth wing of the Congress Party, the National Student Union of India (NSUI), of the four Student Union positions. Campaign cadres chanted in the streets—“Ay! Ay! NSUI!”—hoisting their garlanded candidates into the air. The incumbent president of the Congress Party, Sonia Gandhi, clasped her hands together in prayer position and bowed to President-elect Arun Hooda. Meanwhile, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP)—the student representatives of India’s other major right-wing party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—filled the streets of North Campus to protest the election results, pushing forcefully toward the police barricades. Police took up their batons, chasing ABVP activists into Delhi University’s Central Library, where a brawl between sides put ten in the hospital, two of them with severe head injuries. “The polls were surely rigged and we suspect that the attack on our supporters was planned,” ABVP spokesperson Rohit Chahal announced. “We will agitate and go to court against the results.”
For a student union election, DUSU’s high drama appears excessive. Over the next nine months of NSUI reign, the elected representatives will meet three or four times, over coffee or perhaps a meal, and discuss issues about the university—how to ensure safety for students, how to provide better university infrastructure, how to plan evening classes for working students—to present to the University administration. Yet the high stakes of the DUSU elections reside not in the authority they bestow on the victors but rather in their direct connection to the political parties that lurk behind the scenes. By securing 5,000 more votes than his opponent, NSUI’s Hooda has also secured a career in Parliament. By sweeping the elections, the NSUI has provided perfect political fodder for a struggling Congress Party to assert its popularity. As Outlook India tellingly reported, the victory of the NSUI “reiterates people’s belief and faith in the Congress [Party].”
RULES OF THE GAME
The campaign pyrotechnics of the Delhi University Student Union are the exclusive territory of the ABVP and the NSUI, the two major student parties. These parties have, according to Delhi University student Shomit Sirohi, “maintained a stranglehold over the union.” Shomit is affiliated with the Students Federation of India (SFI), a left wing party connected to West Bengal’s Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM (not to be confused with the Communist Party of India, CPI, which split after the Sino-Indian war of 1962 due to conflicting views of their Chinese comrades). His party, along with CPI’s student party, the All India Students’ Association, commands only a small base of supporters in the elections—a microcosm of the waning influence of the Left in India’s parliamentary politics. SFI members ask their left-leaning professors for pittances of 200 rupees; they offer general body meetings to discuss issues of workers’ rights and college infrastructure. But they pale in comparison to the ABVP and the NSUI, whose parent parties continue to dominate parliamentary politics. For over half a century, these two parties have held control of the DUSU presidency, switching back and forth with the sway of national politics.
DUSU elections offer an easy and effective avenue for political parties to reach the youth and rally them to action—albeit with bribes and promises and petty streetcorner populism—establishing party loyalties for life. Far more important, however, is that DUSU elections have come to represent a mid-term referendum. Back in the 1980s, Congress Party politicians used to appear side-by-side with NSUI candidates on the campaign posters; backing NSUI was directly equivalent to backing the Congress. And for good reason: these were candidates who would move from DUSU up the political chain, dragging with them a major constituency from their college bases. Today, for a struggling Congress party—in the midst of a wavering economy and very public accusations of corruption—the recent victory has been portrayed as a resurgence of their political prowess, using the elections to launch Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s son Rahul Gandhi into the political scene as an icon of the youth movement.
On my first day at Delhi University—where I have been studying for the last few months—I was greeted immediately by the aggressive style of DUSU politics, met by party representatives waiting at Delhi’s North Campus metro on the first day of classes, thrusting ‘Welcome Freshers!’ signs into the faces of first year students.
According to Shomit, this is the first step in a long process of recruitment and training. The second step takes place at the dorms, known as hostels, which “serve as the core for the party politics,” Shomit tells me. Each of Delhi University’s 77 colleges has at least one hostel, reserved only for the best of DU’s 130,000 students, who have a wide variety of economic and geographical backgrounds. An easy target, these hostels are linked to a party through intermediaries—“mostly ex-students from that hostel who have passed out, or more likely failed out, of the college”—who welcome and help usher in the first years. These are the Babas or Bhaiyyas of Delhi University, the “hired goons, the real thugs, who make their bread and butter on the paycheck of the organization,” Shomit explains.
Here, on the first day of the school year, the dorm will have its first meeting. The party thugs—usually in their late 20s—will escort the 60 or so first years around the school, giving them a small tour. A week or so later, the second meeting: they buy the kids food or take them out for a movie, something simple and apolitical. But “their third meeting will be serious business: now you realize that the hostel has a particular privilege, a particular status,” Shomit says, his index finger stretched forward. “They’ll say, ‘you need to protect your hostel; this is your country. The outsiders are just immigrants.’” Riling up the first years with a dual sense of fear and privilege, the Babas give them their first assignment: find ten friends each to join our campaign.
So, in a matter of days, the 60 first years yield 600 votes—“the bare minimum” for a first-year electoral base. Once the 600 have been established, the Babas prepare a meeting with the DUSU candidate and a handful of party higher-ups, members of parliament or their colleagues. “The intermediaries stand right in the middle and say: ‘there’s 600 votes, now let’s discuss my paycheck,’” Shomit says.
Without any real platform on which to run, the DUSU parties seek to exploit this sort of insider-outsider logic even beyond the hostel, where most students are not yet acquainted with the candidates and their background. “It’s all about networks,” Shomit explains. “Candidates are always trying to appeal to some sort of regionalism—‘I’m from Haryana, you’re from Haryana; I speak Malayali; you speak Malayali.’” Add to the regional and linguistic “a great deal of caste-ist politics as well. If you are from Uttar Pradesh and you are a Jat [a caste known for its land-owning wealth], you will get all the UP Jat votes.”
Back in 2005, following a wave of violence in student union elections across India, the Supreme Court asked Former Chief Election Commissioner J. M. Lyngdoh to head a committee that would investigate university politics and offer recommendations on how to curb violence and corruption. These recommendations have since become the regulating code for student union elections throughout the country. But for the most part, candidates pay little attention to the Lyngdoh report, partly because it is hard to regulate such vast and decentralized operations, and partly because the political parties to whom they are connected have enough money to bribe whomever they must.
Most egregiously, the report limits ‘election-related expenditure’ to Rs. 10,000 ($200). Even Shomit acknowledges that this number is “ridiculously low. Left organizations even exceed that—80,000 to 150,000 rupees.” For the ABVP and NSUI—hiring people to make posters, hiring people to put them up; hiring people to treat the first years to dinner, paying for that dinner—this number is laughable. “Right wing organizations spend something like 90 lakhs ($180,000) to 1.5 crores ($300,000) in campaign funds.”
These financial requirements influence the selection of a party candidate. In one DUSU election, a party will typically start out with a list of about 50 potential candidates. As the campaign proceeds, the candidates who can acquire the largest following are selected by the party to be on the ticket—some, by using a family name to attract voters; others, through a strategy of what is called ‘friendly persuasion,’ bribing or intimidating other candidates out of the race. Either way, getting on the ticket requires funding. “You would never see a poor kid standing for NSUI or ABVP; you need to have a few lakh [Rs. 100,000] just to get involved,” Shomit tells me.
Once you’re in, though, you’re in: in a storm of handshakes, a candidate is escorted by intermediaries to the higher-ups of the party, who say “okay, now that you’ve got this, we’ll look after your election,” Shomit tells me. As the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), ABVP’s parent party, as well as the All-India Congress, NSUI’s parent party, are both active free market advocates, the parties have little trouble soliciting funds from their parent’s corporate sponsors. And with funding secured, the candidates are left to duke it out on the street, vying for a position in the Student Union that will ensure enough celebrity to guarantee a career in politics—“whoever gets DUSU has been catapulted into the political scene,” Shomit asserts.
The high stakes help explain why candidates often have two A’s at the beginning of their name. Apathetic voters, it has been shown, pick the first name on the ballot, inviting DUSU candidates to add an A to their names to move to the top of the ballot. “It makes the election easier,” Dagar told me. This year’s NSUI ballot reads as follows: President: Arun Hooda. V. President: AAA Varun Khari. Secretary: AA Varun Chaudhary. Jt. Secretary: Raveena Choudhary.
Many of my peers at Delhi University argue the upside of the DUSU elections. The student union and the publicity it attracts, they say, present an opportunity for the youth to express their political preferences. In a parliamentary system where nepotism reigns supreme—Indira Gandhi to Sanjay Gandhi, Sanjay to Rajiv, Rajiv to Sonia, and now Sonia to Rahul—the DUSU elections provide a sort of purifying source of political energy in an otherwise stagnant, dynastic system.
But this is an optimistic view. Active intimidation of opponents, bribes to local officials, and violence against university administrators have colored the DUSU elections for close to half a century. Much of that is the direct responsibility of the Parties, who plan provocations and agitations on behalf of their candidates; much more of this violence, however, is the result of a mob mentality that is given room to thrive in the atmosphere of the DUSU campaigns. Just two weeks ago, at an NSUI campaign rally, a group of men began harassing a female student from the IP College For Women. On her way to the metro, her rickshaw was stopped by the group of men, and—in broad daylight on Delhi’s North Campus—she was molested before the crowd. “But you know, every year they come back,” Shomit told me over the phone when we discussed the election results. “Every year, there is violence. You shouldn’t be surprised by this.”
With a university population of close to 400,000 students and staff, the Delhi University elections stand for something much larger than student politics. In the heart of the nation’s capital, where student candidates receive face-to-face endorsements from their party presidents, DUSU has served as a training ground in the rules of the game of parliamentary politics beyond campus, summed up in the Hindi word jugaad—where there’s a will, there’s a way; whatever it takes.
DAVID ADLER B’14 is the real thug.