- The Allies: AISA is affiliated with the CPI(ML), which traces its ¬origin to a rebellion in the CPI(M), whose students’ wing is SFI.
- The Rival: The last time the BJP-affiliated ABVP had won a majority in JNUSU was in 1996, when it won three of the four posts.
- The World Outside Campus: The JNUSU election was preceded by the ‘Save JNU’ campaign to ‘defend free speech’ on campus.
Something must have gone horribly wrong in the left-leaning, liberal-thinking sections of the educated, urban middle classes in India for their much-vaunted and much-reviled ‘citadel’—Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi—to be witnessing what many are calling an “existential crisis” of the Left. Once the cradle of politician-ideologues such as CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury and his predecessor Prakash Karat, the university became the site of an apparently unlikely alliance of leftist forces this year: the CPI(M)-affiliated Students Federation of India (SFI) joined hands, for the first time ever, with All India Students Association (AISA), the students’ wing of the CPI(ML) (Liberation), for the September 9 students union (JNUSU) election. Their main rival was the BJP-affiliated Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), which had been trying—especially since the BJP took power at the Centre in 2014—to break out of its historically marginal position in JNU politics.
Interestingly, until this Left alliance was forged, union elections in JNU were largely an AISA versus SFI affair, with the SFI usually contesting in alliance with the CPI-affiliated All India Students Federation (AISF). The CPI(ML) (Liberation) is one of the several groups that trace their political lineage to a revolt within the ranks of the CPI(M) in 1967—triggered by the Naxalbari peasant uprising in a north West Bengal village that drove a wedge through the party, dividing the leaders and ranks into two groups: those who supported Naxalbari and those who didn’t. Unlike the CPI(Maoist), which stakes claim to the same political legacy while continuing to boycott elections and operating as an underground party, the CPI(ML) has been an overground party since the 1990s and contests elections (it won three seats in the Bihar Assembly last year while the CPI(M) and the CPI drew a blank).
In a way, then, the wheel has come full circle for the ‘Liberation’ strand of Naxalite politics with its students’ wing forging an alliance with that of the CPI(M), the very party the founding leaders of the CPI(ML) had rebelled against. “It is true that, over the years, the SFI in JNU has become weak,” Yechury acknowledged in an interview with Outlook last month. “We are currently engaged in rectifying that. But the foundation of the Left students movement that was laid in JNU continues, the character of the JNU students movement continues to remain Left—which shade of the Left is a different matter.”
The beginning of the decline in the JNU SFI coincided with the movements against land acquisition for industrial projects in Singur and Nandigram in the then CPI(M)-ruled West Bengal. Since 2007, it has not won a single office-bearer’s post in the JNUSU, and many attribute this to “wrong choices”, as much in the choice of candidates as in the way the Left Front government dealt with issues such as Singur-Nandigram. Eventually, there was a vertical split in the SFI’s JNU unit in 2012, with the dissidents forming the Democratic Students Federation (DSF), which is seen by some as the “real” Left, “victimised” by the CPI(M) party bureaucracy for the “wrong reasons”. Today, the DSF claims to have more support on campus than the organisation it broke away from.
“There has been dilution in the Left in the past decade, when it was reduced to being a junior partner of the UPA, with CPI(M) intellectuals playing star roles in most government committees, from the Knowledge Commission to the Planning Commission,” says sociologist Anand Kumar, who had defeated Prakash Karat in the 1974 JNUSU elections. “It is facing a lack of confidence, especially as it sent out mixed signals on pragmatism or opportunism, by deciding to go with the Congress in the Bengal assembly elections and against the Congress in Kerala. From political strategy to ideological positioning, there is a growing gap between young India and the Left parties, which you can see in the university.”
This “growing gap” could be the reason that is pushing all kinds of left—the mainstream left, the Naxalite left, the socialist left—to look for ways to come together on common platforms that they hope would help them tide over the loss of support among wide sections of the people. They also want to be seen as raising issues of social justice that many accuse them of having neglected over the years.
“Most parties are losing mass base. So, instead of trade unions, they are now looking at students unions,” says sociologist and political commentator Shiv Visvanathan. “That is because students are increasingly criticising these parties even as youth have become as important for politics now as the working class earlier. Students’ struggles have become crucial for the political survival of a weakening Left.”
“The Left is facing a lack of confidence...it sent out mixed signals by going with the Congress in the Bengal polls and against it in Kerala.”
Anand Kumar, Sociologist
There is, of course, many a slip between recognising the need to do something and actually doing it. “This won’t work given their attitude,” says former JNUSU president and DSF leader V. Lenin Kumar. “They will have to take social issues more seriously.” According to a former SFI activist, the failure so far of all the Left groups on campus to agree among themselves, despite the threat of a rising ABVP, has only weakened the Left as a whole.
“We wanted all the Left organisations to come together and some progress was made; at least two major students’ organisations fought elections unitedly,” says Karat. “Today, there is a concerted attack on JNU by the BJP, the central government and the ABVP, with demands to shut it down. SFI would have divided the votes had it fought elections on its own.” No wonder the SFI-AISA alliance seems to have a single purpose: to resist this attempt to change the nature of politics in JNU by preventing the ABVP from taking over the students’ union. The last time the ABVP had won a majority in JNUSU was in 1996, with three posts. No Left group is unaware of what a repeat could mean with a BJP government at the Centre.
The decision to contest the JNUSU election together, however, does not mean the two traditional rivals in JNU—SFI and AISA—have buried their differences. For instance, a few days ahead of the JNUSU polls, AISA brought out a pamphlet welcoming the Supreme Court’s Singur verdict, which was damaging for the CPI(M). The pamphlet mentioned land-grab in Singur, Nandigram, Jagatsingpur (Posco) etc, but without naming any political party.
Earlier, there had been a failed attempt led by JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar of the AISF to bring his group and three others—SFI, AISA, DSF—on the same electoral platform. Last year, the four organisations could not agree over the distribution of posts and contested separately. That is said to have helped the ABVP. A Youtube video is doing the rounds in which Kanhaiya indicates that fight among the leftist students’ organisations is the main reason for the weakening of the Left. “Something has definitely gone wrong,” agrees CPI general secretary Sudhakar Reddy. “They could have shown their maturity and broadmindedness by contesting together.” Clearly, Left leaders are worried.
“The ABVP is certainly stronger than it was five years ago and, as the number of voters on campus has not changed, this means it has cut into the support base of the Left groups,” says Sanjay Kumar, director of the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. NCP MP and former SFI leader D.P. Tripathi, who was Karat’s batchmate, says, “Split after split has weakened the SFI. The party runs the students wing, so when the former weakens, the latter also faces the heat.”
Former JNUSU president N.R. Mohanty points out that AISA has gained from the decline of the SFI and AISF over the past two decades. “It boils down to the personal popularity of candidates and their gift of the gab,” he says. “Kanhaiya’s oratory had carried the day last year, making him the first ever JNUSU president from the AISF.” Surely, it will take a lot more than the rhetoric of ‘Left unity’ to fight back the ABVP’s agenda for the university.