What JNU election results mean for Left- and Right-wing politics
The coming together of the AISA, DSF and SFI in an alliance this year — an outcome of this unificatory tendency — consolidated the Left base and drew in wider support of students opposed to the RSS-BJP’s brand of politics
The emphatic victory of the united Left alliance in the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) student elections, although not entirely unexpected, is significant in many ways. JNU has been in the eye of successive storms since the appointment of its new vice-chancellor (V-C) in January 2016. From the arrest of the student’s union president and other activists on “sedition” charges last year to an 83% seat cut in MPhil/PhD admissions this year, which dislocated the academic life of hundreds of JNU students, to the recent bid to install a battle tank inside the campus — there has been a barrage of adventurist moves and proposals by the V-C to fundamentally alter the character of the university.
Being a globally-acclaimed centre of higher learning, such assaults on the university’s academic character as well as its historically vibrant “JNU culture” of free debates, discussions and activism, naturally evoked strong protests from within and outside.
The present election mandate is, first and foremost, a massive vote of no-confidence by the students against the V-C and his project of remodelling JNU, catering to an ultra-conservative and anti-intellectual brigade, which has no stake in the well-being of the institution and the future of its students. One hopes that at least now the V-C will change his administrative modus operandi, where legitimate stakeholders within the institution have been attacked and oppressed as hostiles.
That the students of JNU, since its inception, have mostly elected Leftwing activists as their union representatives is a well-known fact. What has also been interesting in JNU’s student politics over the decades is the existence of various shades of the Left, which have openly contested against each other, at times with much bitterness.
Over the past two years though, their own experiences within the campus along with the rising assertiveness of the Right-wing have prodded many Leftwing student outfits to join ranks, in movements and elections. The coming together of the AISA, DSF and SFI in an alliance this year — an outcome of this unificatory tendency — consolidated the Left base and drew in wider support of students opposed to the RSS-BJP’s brand of politics.
The ABVP, on the other hand, could not expand beyond its traditional base because of its role as an apologist of the JNU administration and the NDA government. From Najeeb’s disappearance to anti-student moves like seat cuts and reduction in UGC fellowships, the ABVP failed to defend the students’ interests. This accounts for the huge margins by which the ABVP candidates fell behind those from the united Left panel.
While the unificatory impulse of the present generation of Leftwing activists in JNU is commendable, there is no substitute for painstaking hard work on day-to-day issues of the students, especially for those from the socially-disadvantaged sections. The unfair restrictions on Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union (JNUSU) candidates imposed by the Lyngdoh committee recommendations have aggravated the trend towards the short-cut of sensationalism and erosion of accountability of elected representatives. This superficiality has opened up space for a new outfit like the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students’ Association (BAPSA), which is seeking to articulate the grievances of neglected sections of students, although in a sectarian and exclusivist-identitarian manner, which often misses the forest for the trees. It remains to be seen whether this neo-Ambedkarite current succeed in building bridges with the Left-wing resistance or eventually gets co-opted by the establishment.
In sum, while Marxism in its old and new variants continues to prevail over Savarkar-Golwalkar’s Hindutva in JNU, it needs to deeply engage with the thoughts of Ambedkar, and perhaps also the organic praxis of Gandhi, to combine a vision of reconstruction with the spirit of resistance.
Prasenjit Bose is an economist and activist
The views expressed are personal