Revival of union elections in Allahabad University after seven years renews the hope of democratic student politics

Vinod Chand Dubey has personally tracked student politics in Allahabad, right from its role as a stage for socialist thinking and moulding of future leaders in the 1960s-70s to its much anticipated return this year after an imposed seven-year hiatus. He was elected the Allahabad University Union (now Allahabad University Students’ Union or AUSU) president in 1967 and now, a Samajwadi Party State member, he recalls how merely riding a scooter had dented the hopes of present Uttarakhand Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna in one such campaign.

“His scooter was seen as flaunting power…and he came from an influential family,” Mr. Dubey says, “I spent just Rs. 31 and won. But gradually, student politics, too, became more about muscle power, engulfed in the overall socio-political degradation we are seeing.”

While the recently concluded AUSU elections exhibited symptoms of that muscle flexing, the whimper killed the bang, much to the relief and surprise of many.

Candidates campaigned extensively and unapologetically even before the actual polling process began, flaunting politically-coloured grand banners and posters with little regard for the Lyngdoh proposals. And when two students were shot in pre-poll inter-faction rivalry in separate incidents, many feared the “bad old days were back”. At least three candidates had criminal records, including the elected general secretary, who contested from jail.

However, regardless of tight security measures, varied reports of booth capturing and its violent past, the elections were measured by peace, with Returning Officer Professor B.N. Singh calling them “unique and unprecedented”. “It happened in an orderly manner even though it was held after a huge gap. The students have displayed great patience. There was a time when election officers would go hiding.”

The candidates’ address speeches were also clear indication that students have put their political ambitions on the backburner. The newly elected president Dinesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Chhatra Sabha (Samajwadi Party’s student wing) says reinstating the Central university’s past glory would be the union’s prime objective.

“We want to make the women’s cell more effective, digitalise the libraries, restore cultural activities and improve basic facilities like water, toilets, canteens and hostels,” he lists the things-to-do. “The university does not even have a single ambulance in case of emergencies. The sole doctor works to his own fancies. Even girls’ hostels have no proper canteens. They have to venture out at odd times.”

While Professor Singh agrees that students have grievances, he says they will be considered and improvements will show gradually. Samajwadi Party’s Ajit Yadav, the last AUSU president before elections were banned in 2005, addresses a much more worrying trend. “This is a Central university, yet it is at least 600 professors short. Research scholars come and teach instead. Professors are busy with their private coaching, making huge money and gaining promotions. The quality of education is low. Why will the students not fight for their rights then?” he asks.

But why would students need a political party to simply voice their basic rights? “Here, they won’t take you seriously if you do not have a party. They tell students, Party mein ghuso, hum tumhare saath rahenge (Join this party, we will support you),” says Mr. Ajit Yadav.

And that trend explains why AUSU has long been the springboard for political ambitions for the young flock of the impoverished Purvanchal.

The likes of Chandra Shekhar, V.P. Singh, N.D Tiwari, Shankar Dayal Sharma, Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna, Madan Lal Khurana and Janeshwar Mishra are part of that illustrious brigade which started their political careers here. And they are role-models for student-cum-aspiring politicians aplenty.

However, some students fear the union-baazi will disrupt curriculum and revive “dirty campus politics” as political parties were blatantly involved in the run up. But what both critics and admirers agree upon is the union’s long term role in training the youth in active democracy.

MLA Anugrah Narayan Singh, also a former AUSU president, says: “Regardless of what track they follow later, political or non-political, these elections educate them about participating in a democratic process and create political consciousness.” Many have carried forth these ideals — holding that for a politically crucial Uttar Pradesh with its young Chief Minister, revival of student elections are key to sending “young ideas” to the masses.

Yet many students express that the polls reflected the “caste-based voting” of the panchayat and Parliamentary elections. “It’s not a surprise that three out of five seats are won by candidates of the ruling community,” said a student, wishing to remain anonymous. Pramod Pandey, who stood third in the race for president, feels that not adhering to the much talked about Lyngdoh proposals could set a bad precedent for future polls.

Despite these charges, the polls had an impressive 55 per cent turnout and record seven female candidates, with B.A Final year Shalu Yadav being the first girl student to be elected vice-president in 28 years.

And, to sum it up in Mr. Dubey’s words, “The floodgates have only opened”.