Why We Shouldn’t Use JNU Elections to Make Predictions About National Politics

Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) made the news last month for its student union elections when the Lefy Unity, a coalition of Left parties, won all the major positions – president, vice-president, general secretary as well as joint secretary – by a large margin.

These parties, that otherwise have strong internal differences within them, have worked on putting aside their ideological differences in the last few years. While the united left coalition on JNU’s campus celebrated its victory, the right-wing ABVP claimed that the united left is proof of ABVP’s rising popularity on campus – implying that none of the left parties could have beaten them individually.

This same point is mirrored in the national conversation as well, where the BJP has been pointing out that the opposition unity is a necessity for the survival of several other regional parties who can’t afford to take on BJP singlehandedly. Although JNU’s elections can in no way be compared to any state or general election, these parallels between the two are fascinating.

The bitterly fought election culminated in post-election violence after the results were announced, which led to many across the country raising questions regarding the necessity of student politics. Defence minister, Nirmala Sitharaman’s (a JNU alum) comment on this violence, that there are forces within campus waging a war against India who were also seen with elected representatives of the institution’s students’ union has further polarised the campus politics.

There are many who view student politics as unnecessary and in fact student body elections in JNU were barred for three years by the Supreme Court in 2008 following the Lyngdoh committee’s recommendations, which were opposed by the students because of the restrictive nature of these recommendations. Although the committee didn’t recommend doing away with student body elections within universities completely, it put in restrictive measures regarding how they were to be conducted.

Technical details aside, the recommendations of the committee regarding issues like the eligibility criteria of candidates, transparency in expenditure during student elections, barring candidates from re-contesting etc. are something which have been opposed by students across universities, citing the restrictive nature of these recommendations.

The quality of student politics in a university is a reflection of the overall academic and pedagogic excellence of the institution. Although, the nature and character of the elections across universities varies drastically, the universities which produce quality research also hold elections that are intellectually stimulating.

JNU has been at the receiving end of online trolling and on trial in the national media for two years now. However, the way elections currently happen ends up damaging the reputation of the university.

It is said that JNU remains one of the last bastions of Left politics in India. Barring a few exceptions, Left parties have usually emerged victorious in JNUSU elections year after year. However the difference between the past and the present is that while earlier the Left parties fought elections between themselves, this time they had to band together, keeping aside their own ideological differences.

So, the question usually asked is whether this is a result of the Left ideology losing its appeal among the students or the fear of losing if they contest individually? In the last few years, it has been observed that more and more parties like AISA, AISF and SFI have been forming a coalition to bat against the ABVP, which has emerged as the principle opponent of the united left on the campus. Now, it’s mostly about Right vs Left and both the sides take the line – “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.”

Although the Left won these elections by huge margins, the campus has never been as polarised as it stands today. This has fundamentally changed the nature and character of student politics within JNU. The results of university elections today are extrapolated into national politics, which is a dangerous trend.

Today, what is happening is that the victory of left or the right is seen as a vote for or against the party in power at the centre. Politics within the campuses and student body elections should not be compared to any state or general elections. The reason being that firstly the sample of size of voters in the campus is no match to any state elections and secondly the education level of the voters voting in JNUSU elections (where most of the voters are post-graduates, MPhil and Phd scholars) can’t be compared to the average education level of voters in any state elections.

So, the point is that neither a victory nor a loss of any political party within the campus is reflective of the mood of the young voters towards any political party. Therefore, to say that a left victory in the campus represents an anti-BJP wave in national politics or the coming together of a united left is a reflection of the left ideology losing its appeal in general among the masses are both wrong assumptions.

JNU has traditionally demonstrated how opposing viewpoints can co-exist together by critiquing, discussing, debating each other. These qualities prepare students to become questioning citizens and teach them the value of being democratic in their outlook. However the violence post JNUSU elections has raised questions regarding the space for peaceful dissent within the campus.