It is a yet another lazy afternoon in Jawaharlal Nehru University. I see an e-rickshaw trail past me as I get down from the cab on the university ring road. Except for the occasional honking of a car, I am engulfed by an eerie silence as I walk across the pathways that lead one to the central library of the university. There is nothing that would announce “elections” to me: no pamphlets scattered all over the place, no posters hung from the trees or pasted on the walls, and of course, no slogans to fill the air and break the lull.
I see a few students sitting on benches behind the library, and a few others walking in and out of the reading halls. I am scheduled to talk to some people, but that will come later. For now, I am just trying to figure out the pre-election mood of the campus, and quite frankly, for now, I am not able to spot anything different at all.
As I walk past the trademark JNU graffiti of different student political parties spread at their designated places all over SIS and SLLC blocks, I can’t help but notice black and white posters which are more of long letters put up on the notice board of the old SIS building. The first poster announces ABVP’s ‘Mashal Juloos’ along with the party’s agenda points for the upcoming elections; the second reads “Expose ABVP’s Fake News Factory on Najeeb’s Disappearance” signed as AISA; and the third is titled “Sexist AISA Exposed Again: Left Candidate Throws a ‘Flying Kiss’ at Girls” with the ABVP signature at the bottom of the poster. The notice board has become a debating platform. This is JNU’s own way of contesting claims and getting on the nerves of their political opponents, I decide and resume my stroll.
Behind the SIS building, I am politely requested to stop by two men. They handover two really small sheets of paper to me explaining that their friend is contesting elections for the councillor seat on BAPSA’s ticket. Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association is a new party to have emerged in JNU, about three years ago. One of the papers I have received urges the voters to “Vote, Elect, Assert” and “#Reject Brahmanical Forces ABVP, NSUI, & Left Unity.” I am soon to learn that these small sheets of papers are called ‘parchas’ in JNU lingo. Moments later when someone pushes forward NSUI’s parcha to me, it becomes clear that the party is trying to place itself at the centre of the spectrum, asserting that “JNU is not a battleground for the Left and the Right.”
“BJP has been destroying the university, and the Left-led union of JNU from the past four to five years has not been successful in fighting for the university because of which students’ politics has suffered at large, and it is exactly for these reasons that NSUI is a major force today in JNUSU,” Vikas Yadav, NSUI’s presidential candidate would later tell me in the evening when I meet him during their ‘Mashal Juloos’.
“In the past few years, NSUI has not been a relevant force in JNU at all. Suddenly, this year, we see they crop up and they are quite visible everywhere,” Kriti Roy, from SFI, contesting elections for the seat of councillor SSS, tells me as we sit outside the Sabarmati dhaba. Students have started to come out of their hostels as the sun is setting on the Aravali hills. “They even invited Shashi Tharoor to speak here. ABVP, similarly, invited three Chief Ministers at a time to the campus. They are spending all this money because of the upcoming 2019 elections, and that makes JNUSU elections this time around the most significant,” she adds.
Responding to this, Vikas Yadav says, “Personally, I have been associated with students’ politics for ten years and I don’t think students’ politics is totally isolated from the larger politics of the country, and if we can give a strong message for the 2019 elections, I don’t see anything harmful in that.”
When I meet Manish, a PhD candidate speaking to me on the behalf of ABVP, and ask him about allegations levelled against ABVP of using JNUSU elections as a launchpad for BJP’s campaign of 2019 elections, he chuckles and says, “You know this really makes me laugh. As far as 2019 elections are concerned, they are still some time away and if anybody is thinking these elections are going to have an effect on that, let me tell you, they are thinking too far. We focus on the issues specific to students.”
“These JNUSU elections are coming right before the 2019 elections, and to get ABVP to win from university campuses in general, and JNU, in particular, has become a semi-final of sorts for the current government. As such, from JNU, we want to give them a clear message that this isn’t a semi-final, this is rather the final for you. We are going to give you a verdict from here because in the past four years you have destroyed democracy, lowered the quality of education because of privatisation, and have launched a larger attack on the freedom of expression,” N Sai Balaji, the presidential candidate of Left Unity argues. This year, AISA, SFI, DSF, and AISF have come together to form an alliance.
“It is a mere joke on the part of the Left to form an electoral alliance to win the elections. In the real struggles that are fought on an everyday basis, they are nowhere united. Once they win the elections, they bring forth their differences. Last year AISF stayed away from the alliance citing the reason that they are “principled Left.” This year, suddenly, the principles have gone away. I am telling you, there is nothing like ‘Left’ or ‘United’ in the United Left,” Amir Malik, who has been associated with BASO, tells me over the phone. The poor network connection inside JNU campus hampers our call time and again. BASO is not contesting elections this year.
“As we know AISA, AISF and other parties in the Left Unity have major political differences. However, we have to come together to form an alliance because right now we are actually losing the ground where we can criticise each other. It is to reclaim the space itself where we can, later on, have the differences. The Left organisations are our adversaries, but our enemies right now are those who stand for the benefit of the corporates,” Kriti Roy explains to me.
For Manish, the ABVP is why the parties of the Left had to unite, although for altogether different reasons. “There was a point in time, six years back, when our activists used to distribute parchas and they used to be thrown back at their faces. Contrast that situation with today’s when four parties of the Left have to come together to fight against us. This is because of our honesty and because students have seen through them.” Before he leaves to join his other members, Manish quips, “You talk to any Vidyarthi Parishad student and you will definitely see that honesty.”
Meanwhile, outside the 24×7 canteen (which ironically closes at around 12 in the night now) I meet Arshe Alam, a Master’s student at the university. While casually talking about the elections, he tells me that apart from the famous “Lal Salams” and “Bhagwa Salams” reverberating on the campus, this time around “Satrangi Salams” are probably the most famous ones.
By now, the JNU main road is flooded by the streetlights and the campus has finally come alive. Along with yet another of his friend, we decide to go to KC for dinner. In order to share some light moments, one of them decides to tell us a few election jokes. “Last year, while taking on the Left Unity, a candidate joked during the presidential debate that first there was Sonu, who was joined by Monu, and then Pintu came on the scene. This year, it is a running joke among a lot of people that Rinku has finally been added as well.” We all laugh.
He continues, “These e-rickshaws you see on the campus nowadays, well, ABVP claims that it was because they talked to the administration that these were introduced. We say to them that when you can make things happen without even being in the union, why would you need to be in the union at all?”
After dinner, I get on a call with Sabina Yasmin, a PhD candidate at SSS. Talking about BAPSA’s emergence and gaining ground on the campus and the Left Unity, she says, “Outside campus, it could be that the secular forces are indeed coming together or at least trying to work together to oppose the undemocratic and regressive right-wing forces in power. But inside the campus, which seems to be a stronghold of Left politics, things don’t really work the same way at the micro level. Even though the Left Unity here claims to serve the same purpose, I think it is mostly a projection. The savarna leftist parties of JNU are probably threatened by the rise of BAPSA in recent years. So Left Unity could easily be seen as a way to throw BAPSA off, because it is a formidable force on campus now, a party more representative of the aspirations of oppressed identities than any of the older Left parties, which in the name of empowering them, seem to be only good at appropriating them.”
Kriti Roy, on the other hand, says that the Left Unity does not see any Ambedkarite formation as their enemy. When I talk to her about the fact that BAPSA calls the Left Unity ‘Savarna Left’, Kriti retorts, “Let us not be under the idea that when we talk about BAPSA we talk about oppressed communities. I can tell you that there are more bahujans and that there are more people from marginalised communities in my organisation. In fact, these people from our organisation are booed and shamed by BAPSA supporters when they get on public platforms to speak as if these people do not have the agency to choose their own politics.”
By the time I have finished talking to almost everyone I was scheduled to talk to, it is already 11 pm. As I call the cab driver, he tells me he is waiting behind the Mashal Juloos of NSUI, the parcha for which I had received earlier. The students, holding local versions of flambeaus, shout slogans in favour of NSUI. Candidates and supporters of other parties, stationed nearby, raise their own din. It finally feels like an election, albeit, a “JNU election.”