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Rahul Gandhi bets on NSUI for 1st time votes

In attendance are a group of 35 students, selected from 500 applications, attending the four-week Future of India course, organised by the National Students’ Union of India (NSUI), the Congress’ student affiliate.

india Updated: Jun 29, 2018 09:04 IST
HT Correspondent
HT Correspondent
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
NSUI,Rahul Gandhi,Congress
NSUI members shout slogans during a protest in New Delhi.(PTI File Photo)

For almost three weeks now, at the India International Centre Annexe in the capital, top Congress leaders, from former finance minister P Chidambaram to former external affairs minister Salman Khurshid, from former rural development minister Jairam Ramesh to Lok Sabha MP Shashi Tharoor, from head of Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s office K Raju to younger MPs Gaurav Gogoi and Deepender Hooda, have turned into teachers.

In attendance are a group of 35 students, selected from 500 applications, attending the four-week Future of India course, organised by the National Students’ Union of India (NSUI), the Congress’ student affiliate.

The leaders are speaking on a range of themes, foreign, economic, even monetary policy; the United Progressive Alliance’s ‘rights based’ development paradigm; the agrarian crisis. The idea, explains Ruchi Gupta, joint secretary of the Congress in charge of NSUI, is to talk about “the politics of policy”.

The workshop is part of a broader mandate the NSUI is working with. In the run up to 2019, Congress president Rahul Gandhi has asked NSUI to focus on student union elections but also go beyond it to connect to the larger student population; act as a bridge with close to 150 million first time voters; systematically work on both expanding electoral strength and manage ‘perception’ around the party; and identify emerging leaders in each state, said two functionaries familiar with NSUI’s functioning.

One of them said, “The party is increasingly understanding that while student union elections are essential and we have to win, it cannot be the end goal. Many students even within public universities are not interested in union elections; and there is a large student universe outside it.”

NSUI is attempting to reach out to this constituency.

The immediate aim is to help the party’s cause in 2019.

According to Gupta: “NSUI can engage serious aspirational young people who would otherwise have gone into think-tanks and movements. It also helps build our capacity to be able to set agenda and raise issues in a substantive manner outside of ad-hoc street protests.”

But this is coupled with other attempts.

On the electoral side, ever since it won the Delhi University Students Union (DUSU) election last September, the NSUI has run specific campaigns, says Gupta.

In Gujarat, it focused on the privatisation and commercialisation of education, which became a campaign theme.

In Karnataka, it hosted townhall meetings.

“In Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, we will focus on education and employment. In Chhattisgarh, we have started a postcard campaign called vikas khoj, looking for development,” she adds.

Organisationally, NSUI has picked Delhi and Rajasthan as pilot states.

In 272 wards in Delhi, NSUI has selected two students each; they have then been given the responsibility to reach out to other students in that ward.

In Rajasthan, Congress has 400 blocks organisationally; two students have been identified in every block. They are then collectively building campaigns which will aggregate at the district-level.

But a key element, beyond the electoral and organisational, is the mandate of “perception management”.

The NSUI has conducted focus group discussions on perceptions about the party and shared feedback with leaders.

The perception includes the Congress being viewed as “dynastic and elite”; Modi being seen as embodying development; Congress’ messages not filtering down or filtering down in inaccurate, distorted ways, admitted the second functionary. “There are deficiencies and we are working to counter it, and build a narrative for the young aspirational voter.”

Will this strategy — select workshops, concerted state-specific campaigns, incremental organisational expansion — work electorally?

Experts are skeptical.

Gilles Verniers, a political scientist at Ashoka University, says, “Student affiliates have always been more useful to the recruitment of cadres than for voter mobilisation. The recent performance of NSUI in student elections has fluctuated and local successes can have the effect of mobilising the party’s troops, but not necessarily to reach out to the student population at large. Besides, the majority of students (61%) now studies in private colleges, where there is generally no party presence”.

Back at the IIC, students continue to receive training from top Congress leaders, and the party hopes it will add to the ecosystem of informed supporters.

Verniers places such efforts in perspective.

“The Congress’ policy workshop are part of cadre training and aim at giving their new recruit an impression that they are part of the party’s policy thinking. Whether it translates into concrete effect on the ground remains to be seen. This is more of an internal process for the party, not a vote-catcher initiative”.

First Published: Jun 29, 2018 00:00 IST