JNU lesson for the Opposition: narratives can change

The students’ union election held last week after a gap of five years saw Left and Left-backed candidates grab all four posts. Does this carry a message for the opposition?

JNUSU president and PhD scholar Dhananjay addresses the victory gathering (photo: @AISA_tweets/X)
JNUSU president and PhD scholar Dhananjay addresses the victory gathering (photo: @AISA_tweets/X)

Uttam Sengupta

Left-supported JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University) student Swati Singh must have been sorely disappointed. Part of the panel for the joint secretary’s post in the JNUSU (students' union) and presumably having campaigned vigorously enough, her candidature was, however, reported to have been ‘cancelled’ at 2.00 am in the intervening night between Thursday and Friday, 16 March, barely seven hours before polling was to start at 9.00 am.

The cancellation, it was explained, was prompted by a complaint by the ABVP (Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad), the students’ union affiliated to the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh). The ABVP and the university apparently woke up to the fact that the university had rusticated her a few years ago. However, she had clearly challenged the rustication successfully and returned to the campus as a student. So what was the fuss?

There are no explanations yet why the ABVP and the JNU administration could not take the decision earlier. It is said that the unearthly hour of 2.00 am was chosen so that the cancellation could not be challenged in a court of law, which would have been possible if the cancellation had taken place a day earlier.

It did not help because the students displayed remarkable maturity and organising ability to decide that all Left supporters would transfer their votes to the Ambedkarite BAPSA (Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students' Association) candidate for the joint secretary’s post. The mobilisation succeeded, and the Left-supported BAPSA candidate won.

The JNU administration will, no doubt, engage expensive lawyers to defend its decision in court; but that it failed to stop the Left-supported students from winning, has lessons for Opposition parties and supporters ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

As in JNU, the Opposition certainly would expect the ‘Modi media’ and the Election Commission of India to try and stop them by all means, fair or foul. It would require Opposition parties and supporters the maturity, flexibility, and tactical sense of the JNU students for them to ward off the onslaught by the establishment.

In his post-election speech, JNUSU president-elect Dhananjay fleetingly referred to the spate of appointments made in JNU during the last 10 years. He did not mince words, and said the only qualification of the newly appointed teachers seemed to be their incompetence, their loyalty to the RSS-BJP, and their willingness to attend the RSS shakha in the morning. This, he added, was unfair and dangerous for the future of the students, and the JNUSU would raise its voice against such recruitments.

As a former JNU professor reflected, the JNU teachers’ association, too, has had to knock on the judiciary's doors to overturn several illegal and unfair decisions by the JNU administration during the last 10 years. The university would have spent a minor fortune on losing litigation and fighting lost battles, he exclaimed, adding that both teachers and students of JNU would have inspired each other.

Along with teachers, a disproportionately large number of admissions have also been offered during the last 10 years to students from ‘RSS-BJP families'. An independent inquiry would reveal a disproportionately large number of the wards of ruling party members. This is reflected in the impressive number of votes polled by ABVP nominees in the JNUSU elections.

The election itself was allowed after five years because the ABVP was confident of winning this time. Scheduling the elections just before the Lok Sabha elections cannot be an accident either. Wresting the ‘Left bastion’ by the ABVP would have added to the mounting efforts by the BJP to project that it no longer faces any challenge, that even the youth in JNU had now fallen in line.

It is a different matter that events did not turn out according to script. That there was a script was borne out by the fact that most TV channels on Sunday, the day of counting, devoted disproportionate attention to the event. When the ABVP took the lead in the early rounds, some of the channels went overboard to predict an imminent ABVP sweep. As the trend turned by early evening, they gradually fell silent, not caring to even cover the result, declared a little before midnight.

Crestfallen BJP supporters half-heartedly mocked the Left on social media, saying derisively that the celebrations by the Left seemed as if they had won the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. Had the ABVP won, the celebrations and media coverage would indeed have resembled as if BJP had won 2024.

The euphoria in Left circles was, in fact, justified after the result. They had fought an unequal, unfair, and uphill battle, and won against all odds. It was their commitment to justice and retaining the character of JNU, which provided the best possible education in social sciences, languages and humanities at fees affordable for poor and marginalised sections of students, which rallied support for them.

Of late, the JNU administration has enhanced fees, reduced budgets for the library and fellowships, and has allowed existing infrastructure to crumble. As the JNUSU president-elect said in his victory speech, these are all issues that the newly elected union will raise, besides gender sensitisation and retaining the inclusive character of the university.

The opposition should take heart and draw inspiration from the students’ union election in JNU. They should watch the Newslaundry video, in which a few dejected students from Delhi University can be heard saying that they would like to turn JNU into DU. Asked why and how, they laughed and said that the students at JNU seemed to have no idea of ‘fun’ and studied too hard. JNU should have more events and festivals, they suggested.

The mood in JNU need not be the mood of the nation, of course. However, it is clear that bread and butter issues, unemployment, higher cost of education, transport, and health are issues that agitate the youth. The Opposition needs to address these concerns and expose the anti-youth and anti-student policies of the government.

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