Saturday, October 14, 2006

Campus elections: Party time is over

The face of student politics may never be the same. With the Supreme Court’s recent order on the implementation of the Lyngdoh Committee report, money and muscle power is likely to get leaner in campus elections. More transparency, accountability and discipline will also be ensured.
Smriti Kak Ramachandran gets the reactions of present and former student leaders and men from academia to the order that is set to stamp out the dark side of campus politics.

Poll reforms shall restrain big spenders and undesirable campus goings-on.
Poll reforms shall restrain big spenders and undesirable campus goings-on.
— Photo by Mukesh Aggarwal

Reforming the electoral process is a job that Ramon Magsaysay awardee James Michael Lyngdoh knows all too well. Having stood his ground during the Gujarat and Jammu and Kashmir elections that won him both bouquets and brickbats, the former Chief Election Commissioner was roped in to reform student elections that have become notorious for money, muscle and even murder.

A seemingly intrinsic part of everybody’s college years, student union elections have graduated from campus debates to a struggle between political parties over the control of the youth, a potent pawn to net the bigger game.

The frenzy, the finances and the fury that union elections bring with them became reason for the Supreme Court to direct the Union Human Resource Development Ministry to set up a committee to examine what ails present-day campus politics.

The Lyngdoh Committee — set up to dissect, diagnose and design a remedy — has come up with a series of far-reaching recommendations that are expected to change the face of students’ politics.

Curbs & checks

The following are some of the recommendations offered by the Lyngdoh Committee:

  • Rs 5,000 limit on election expenses per candidate

  • No printed posters, printed pamphlets or any other printed material for the purpose of canvassing will be allowed.

  • Elections to be held on a yearly basis and the same should be held between six and eight weeks from the date of commencement of the academic session.

  • With a view to prevent the inflow of funds from political parties into the students’ elections, the candidates are specially barred from utilising funds from any other source than voluntary contribution from the student body.

  • No academic arrears for the candidates in the year of contesting elections.

  • A 75 per cent attendance record or the minimum prescribed by university, whichever is higher

  • Upper age limit of the candidate is fixed at 28 years for research students

  • Student representation should be regulated by a statute either central, state or individual university statute.

For starters, the Committee has frowned upon the marriage of convenience between mainstream political parties and students’ factions. The Lyngdoh Committee report accepted by the Supreme Court to frame guidelines on student elections today is favoured by not just teachers threatened by the increasing violence against them but has also found support among those in the civil society, who stood witness to the murkier side of student politics.

The death of a professor in Ujjain, the vandalism at a Vice-Chancellor’s residence in Meerut or blackening the face of a teacher in Mumbai — incidents such as these have pushed the country to debate whether student politics, as it prevails, is desirable at all.

"If teachers continue to be beaten up by students then elections should be a no-no. There is a need to reform the system. If a teacher is guilty, there are punishments that can be doled out, but being beaten up by students is not acceptable," says Prof Surinder Nath, Head of the Anthropology Department, Delhi University.

In the face of criticism, student leaders and their political patrons are trying to salvage the tarnished image of politics on the campus. "It is incorrect to say that students — who at 18 have the power and the sense to cast their vote for assembly and parliamentary elections — should not be allowed to form unions in colleges," says Vijay Goel, who was the BJP’s MP from Delhi’s Chandni Chowk.

Having been a student union leader in 1977, Goel welcomes the initiative to decriminalise student politics but says he is against keeping political parties out of campus elections.

The recommendation to keep political parties out has for once got the Congress and the BJP to talk the same language.

Both parties claim that their "presence is to foster the future leadership of the country". They claim that in a democracy where students fight elections based on ideology, political parties are like a "source of inspiration". In other words, they insist that the umbilical chord cannot be snapped.

With both the Lyngdoh Committee and students taking divergent views on the issue, a middle path offered by others calls for students to maintain their identity and not end up as playthings of any political party.

"Student factions need to be more autonomous, they should not receive funding, but can share ideology. At the end of the day they should be able to question their party, otherwise they would end up as agents," offers Tyler Walker Williams, a US national who is a counsellor at the School of Languages, Literature and Cultural Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).

The proposal to have indirect elections is being seen as a move to "kill student activism". Says K K Ragesh, all-India president of the Students’ Federation of Indian (SFI), "Ours is an independent organisation and it is our prerogative to invite a political leader during electioneering. While there is need to eradicate violence and criminalisation of student politics, we must remember that it is in the interest of private managements to put an end to student movement."

The SFI, which is aligned to the CPM, has expressed scepticism over the proposal to have indirect elections. "It is not quite correct to dismantle student bodies because unlike candidates from a particular organisation, you cannot hold an individual accountable," says Albina Shakeel, former JNUSU president and SFI activist.

Now will there be an end to hi-fi electioneering?
Now will there be an end to hi-fi electioneering? — Photo by Mukesh Aggarwal

Another recommendation that has caused a furore amongst students is one that limits the candidates’ election spending to a mere Rs 5,000. This, Goel claims, is even less than what they spent more than 25 years ago.

"How can they say Rs 5,000? How did they decide the amount? Can a university like Delhi be compared to one in Patna or West Bengal? In Delhi where a candidate has to canvass in 52 college spread all over the city, can Rs 5,000 be enough to meet even the petrol bills," asks the ABVP’s state general secretary, Nakul Bhardwaj.

One of the big spenders, the National Students Union of India (NSUI), which plans to become a party to the case, says the amount is "unrealistic". "There is a need to understand how electioneering varies in each college, not to mention universities. In Delhi alone, the elections in different varsities are vastly different. If you can drive home the message with hand-painted posters in JNU, you need thousands of coloured posters just to acquaint the students with the candidates in DU, because it is huge and scattered," points out NSUI spokesperson Kuntal Krishna.

Their argument is rubbished by Lyngdoh who claims he has arrived upon the figure after "wider consultations". "When we went across the country, we met hundreds of people and the impression that we were given was that Rs 5,000 should be enough. We have interacted with reasonable people."

Lyngdoh also counters the argument that students involved in politics should be exempted from the mandatory minimum attendance and the focus should not be on academic excellence. "I thought universities are meant to be competitive places," he retorts.

The concerns expressed by the students and their leaders aside, the Lyngdoh Committee’s report is being perceived as one designed to ensure transparency, accountability and discipline in the student politics.

The Students Islamic Organisation of India (SIO), for instance, welcomes the suggestions. National SIO president S. Zameer Quadri says the recommendations given "would certainly bring transparency and would ensure free and fair elections."

Quadri hopes the guidelines would "prepare better leaders for the country as it would inculcate democratic credentials in the students".

The recommendation that calls for having an age limit (between 18 and 25 years) for the candidate has also won public approval.

When Lyngdoh says "there is no scope for hangers-on", there is hardly any disagreement.

"It is only fair to have an age bar. In my college the candidate contesting for the president’s post was already married. He had by then even graduated thrice. How can students identify with such candidates," questions S Abhilash, who works for an MNC.

"It was a practice that needed to be eradicated. Students just kept getting admission in different courses in different colleges, just to remain eligible for contesting elections. The Buddhist Studies Department in DU had a problem on its hands when the contestants began demanding admission only to meet the eligibility," points out a senior official of the university.

The only protest over the age limit has come from research scholars in JNU, who feel they have been barred from participation in campus politics. "There should be some relaxation in JNU where researchers are between 26 and 30 years. Why should they be left out?" Mathew, a JNU student who is also an NSUI activist, complains.

The list of complaints runs long. The ABVP election manager for the recently conducted DUSU poll, Rajeev Babber, comes up with this, "The Lyngdoh Committee report should not remain silent on issues like dummy candidates and permission to use symbols."

"This criticism and the counter arguments are basically noise, being instigated by political parties. The very fact that the Congress in Delhi appointed senior party functionaries like Ashok Gehlot to ensure they win the elections speaks aloud of the interest that political parties have in student union elections. Which political party does not want the youth on its side? And when you can predict in the national Capital whether a party will win or lose the assembly and parliamentary elections based on the performance of its youth wings in universities, can they afford to not invest time and money," argues a senior functionary of JNU.

Pointing out that "guidelines are necessary than ever before", he says, "It should not require a Lyngdoh Committee to remind people that students behave like hoodlums, extracting money, intimidating voters, flaunting their money and muscle and even boasting of getting away with murder. Prof H.S. Sabharwal’s death in Ujjain is still a raw wound and public memory should not be so short."


Keep parties out: Lyngdoh
Ramesh Kandula from Hyderabad

J. M. LyngdohWe took as pragmatic an approach as possible," says former Chief Election Commissioner J. M. Lyngdoh, who headed the Committee that presented recommendations to keep off the influence of political parties, money and muscle power from student union elections.

Speaking to The Tribune at his countryside home on the outskirts of Hyderabad, where he has settled down after his retirement, Lyngdoh said the recommendations made by the Committee could have far-reaching consequences in reforming student body politics in the country, if implemented properly.

"Taking into account the size of the university and other factors, we recommended direct elections, indirect poll or the nomination method. This is because the situation is not the same across the country."

In large universities like Delhi University, direct elections are not advisable as contestants cannot reach all the students and, consequently, the role of money comes in. The universities in the states of UP and Bihar are at one extreme where student body elections have been hijacked by criminal-politician nexus. Chennai is at another end of the spectrum where higher education is completely controlled by private managements, run essentially by political leaders, where there is no place for student representation, Lyngdoh explained.

"Flexibility is what we advocated. What is important is the quality of representation of students in university affairs. They can choose any one of the methods suggested depending on the local realities and practices," he said.

The Lyngdoh Committee argued against any role for political parties in student body elections. While the Supreme Court has accepted certain recommendations like the Rs 5000 cap on poll expenses and the candidature to be open only to full-time students, the apex court has not said anything on banning political parties from student elections.

"I understand they (the court) have reserved the order on this matter," Lyngdoh said.

Political interference in the appointment of vice-chancellors has also contributed to the sorry state of student body elections in the country, he felt. In Central Universities, where the appointments of VCs are above board, the elections are relatively free from problems.

"In places like UP, almost every appointment is political. No wonder, the student union elections in these universities are no better than the General Election. Student leaders there go around with gunmen, indulge in extortion, and prepare the ground for a bigger role in national politics," he said.

Pointing out that the job of the Committee was over with the submission of the report, Lyngdoh said that once the court takes a final view on all the recommendations, it will be the job of the Human Resources Development Ministry to enforce the guidelines.

There are suggestions for Centre-state relations here, he added, as education is a state subject. There are also other issues such as prior legislations in some states like Maharashtra, where student elections were banned.

Lyngdoh said an internal body appointed by the university should be in place to redress the grievances of students, whether elections are by the direct, indirect or nomination method.

Why depoliticise campuses?

Former student leaders from the region favour cutting down poll costs but strongly oppose depoliticisation of the process, says Chitleen K. Sethi

The Lyngdoh Committee has prohibited use of printed posters.
The Lyngdoh Committee has prohibited use of printed posters. — Photo by Pradeep Tewari

Student elections show different hues in the different states of Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir as well as the union territory of Chandigarh.

Chandigarh, for instance, has a well-settled system of conducting elections to the students’ council of Panjab University (PU) as well as various colleges. Punjab, in contrast, has had no elections to any student body since the early 1980s when militancy became acute in the state.

In the neighbouring Himachal Pradesh, elections to the different universities — be it Himachal Pradesh University (HPU) or the Y.S. Parmar University of Agriculture Sciences, Nauni (Solan) — as well as the colleges are held smoothly every year. In Jammu and Kashmir, elections to elect students’ representatives in Jammu University or Kashmir University have not been held for the past many years.

While PU elections are a study in how colourful and money-centric students’ elections have become, the affair is rather subdued in HPU. However, the most striking difference in the students’ politics in Chandigarh and Himachal Pradesh is that while in Himachal, students’ wings of various national political parties – NSUI (Congress), ABVP (BJP) and SFI (Left) – are well ensconced, in Chandigarh, it is the non-political Panjab University Students Union (PUSU) and Students Organisation of Panjab University (SOPU), etc, which have managed to outdo NSUI, ABVP, etc.

For many years indirect elections to the Panjab University Campus Students Council were held wherein first department representatives (DRs) were elected who then chose the Council president. During these years muscle power played an important part in elections. Presidential candidates were known to have "kidnapped" DRs (who were likely to support an opponent and organised parties and bashes for the DRs who supported them).

In 1977 direct elections were introduced in PU but the system continued for only a few years till terrorism led to a complete end to the system and the indirect election system was revived. Old-timers recall how, during the times of indirect elections, student leaders, most of them belonging to rich families, used the carrot and stick policy to the hilt to win elections.

Since 1997, when direct elections were again started, instances of use of strong-arm tactics, including beating up of contestants, came down drastically. Direct elections were re-started in PU only after a student leader, Kuljit Singh Nagra, sat on a fast-unto-death over this issue.

In 1996, he became a member of the PU Senate from the graduates’ constituency and joined hands with other former student leaders like Randeep Singh Surjewala, Anmol Rattan Sidhu, Rajinder Singh Deepa, Pawan Valecha to take up the issue in the Senate. Thereafter, direct elections were announced. And now, money rather than muscle power plays an important part in the annual elections of the students’ council. By conservative estimates, a presidential candidate spends anywhere from Rs 3 lakh to 5 lakh.

The majority of former students leaders, while agreeing that the there is need to cleanse the electoral system, don’t favour depoliticisation of the process.

Says Nagra, "In our times, we used to request our female supporters to prepare posters. Now, I see every candidate getting posters and cut-outs manufactured from professionals. Use of money in students’ elections should be limited. After all, we are building future leaders of the country."

Another former student leader, Anupam Gupta, who is a leading lawyer at the Punjab and Haryana High Court, says the recent judgment of the Supreme Court regarding elections to student unions is a welcome step. "However, while the intention behind the Supreme Court judgment is welcome, there is a danger that the court might have been guilty of overkill. The range of problems involved in student democracy in different parts of the country can hardly be exhausted by a single uniform judicial order applicable to all. Elections-related violence needs to be curbed with a heavy hand but I am against the move to depoliticise campuses. How can there be democracy without politics and political parties?" Gupta asks.

The Vice Chancellor, PU, Prof R.C. Sobti, feels it would not be too difficult for the university to follow the new guidelines. "Even in the recent elections, we were within the rules except for the limit on use of funds. There were no posters and contestants were made to do with cut-outs. The next time we will persuade the students to remain within the budget allowed," he adds.

Punjabi University, Patiala, which has produced leaders like Jagmeet Singh Brar, Bir Devinder Singh and Tara Singh Sandhu have no student elections. A similar condition exists at Guru Nanak Dev University (GNDU), Amritsar. Despite repeated demands from students, no elections have been held in colleges across the state.

Says Bir Devinder Singh: "Denying students their rights to elect their own leaders is detrimental to democracy. The voting age has come down to include students and the youth is playing a pivotal role in bringing political parties to power. If students can elect national leaders, why not their own? Moreover, without elections in universities and colleges, how will new leaders emerge? We are already facing an acute shortage of groomed leaders to lead the youth."