Political parties are quite naturally inclined to talk up their successes and underplay the significance of setbacks. Under the circumstances, the elation in the BJP over the ABVP’s victory in three of the four elected posts for the Delhi University Student’s Union is understandable. Likewise, it is also entirely predictable that the Congress has blamed faulty EVMs for its failure to hold on to the body. Blaming defeats on electoral irregularities has, it would seem, also become routine.
Discounting the template responses, is there any significance to the outcome of the DUSU elections, some seven months before the general election of 2019? The answers are mixed.
To begin with, student elections are only partially indicative of the larger popular mood. Despite the phenomenal expansion of higher education in India, universities — especially those dominated by undergraduaye-heavy constituent colleges — tend to be middle class in character. The middle class in turn embraces a very social range in terms of income, social status and aspirations. It includes representatives of the traditional elite and those who are first-generation literates. In addition, apart from students rooted to the city, Delhi University has a large numbers of students who come to the Capital city from both neighbouring and distant states. Although not in the same bracket as the IITs or even Jawaharlal Nehru University, DU has a relatively more diverse character than, say, State universities. However, in the case of DUSU, some of this diversity is discounted by the fact that at least two of the most elite institutions — St Stephen’s College and Lady Shri Ram College — are not members of DUSU and, consequently, don’t participate in the election.
The DUSU election is at best a loose parameter of how Young India thinks. Yet, considering that nearly half the electorate is made up of under-35s, the age group that swung the 2014 election in favour of the BJP and Narendra Modi in 2014, its importance should not be entirely discounted. The DUSU election does have a qualified representative character. Consequently, the results are nominally indicative of larger trends in the country.
If anything, this year’s outcome demolished an important but self-serving myth that has been doing the rounds for the past two years. This myth is centred on the belief that both Modi and the BJP have steadily lost ground owing to the tensions that have pitted rebellious instincts against the government. For example, there is widely held view that the Rohit Vermula suicide in Hyderabad some three years ago has alienated young Dalits from the BJP. There is also a belief, in media circles at least, that the tensions over ‘seditious’ slogans and the arrest of the so-called ‘urban Maoists’ have made students concerned over the future of democratic freedoms. The Modi government has been projected as being vehemently anti-student and even anti-intellectual.
To what extent intellectualism is actually celebrated in Indian universities is a worthy subject of future inquiries. However, the ABVP’s success does suggest that the adverse impact of the Modi government’s stand against those who have been caricatured as promoting the vivisection of India has been vastly exaggerated. The relative failure of the far-Left in the DUSU polls is significant. It suggests that conventional middle class opinion on issues that excite the imagtination of intellectuals and the English-language media does not always resonate in the youth. India’s younger generation may convey an outward image of westernised modernity and carefree cosmopolitanism but this is tempered by a huge overlayer of conservatism. The Modi government and the BJP have been able to tap into these impulses. The quest for radical alternatives is still a fringe preoccupation.
Secondly, past experience suggests that students are rarely insulated from the larger unpopularity of any government. Any feeling of hopelessness and economic despondency has an immediate effect. The ABVP, for example, was strongest in Delhi University in the 1970s when there was a feeling of gloom and doom over individual prospects. In places such as Kolkata, where economic prospects seemed even more dire, student unrest led to experimenting with Maoist politics.
What the DUSU results tell us is that conventional politics — as expressed in support for the ABVP and NSUUI — is both alive and kicking. That the ABVP enjoyed an edge also suggests that there is no real sense of anger at the Modi government or any despondency over future prospects. Had that been the case, the support for the ABVP would have crumbled. That is not the case and would indicate that the Congress activism over India’s perceived economic decline isn’t universally shared. Nor for that matter is there evidence that the thrust on the government’s alleged corruption finds a ready audience. Clearly, the Opposition belief that the BJP will be routed in the general election is an overstated claim. The BJP support base seems relatively intact — as is the Congress’ support — and the real fight will be for the floating voters.
Finally, it must be noted that a student election isn’t in any way a political referendum, although it does indicate the overall support for parties. How the injection of the Modi factor will change calculations will shift voting patterns is the key. That battle has not really begun in earnest.
Swapan Dasgupta is a senior journalist and Member of Parliament, being a presidential nominee to the Rajya Sabha.