On 12 September, the Delhi University Students’ Union (DUSU) conducted its annual general election to elect the university’s student representatives, including President. For many, these polls are nothing more than a mere college election. But, for many others, they are the first steps towards entering national politics. Hence, they deserve serious scrutiny.

To underestimate the power of student unions, would be naïve. Time and again, they have proved their relevance to the larger powers that be. One cannot forget the 1974 Nav Nirman Andolan in Gujarat or the protests in Jawaharlal Nehru University during the Emergency, leading to the removal of the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, from the post of Vice Chancellor of the university.

These unions, besides directly influencing national politics, have also produced national leaders. For instance, current Union Finance Minister,  Arun Jaitley, had a vibrant campus political life during the Emergency as part of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and then the DUSU President.

What purposes do Student Union elections really serve?

First, they act as the testing ground for mainstream political parties. By fielding students to key posts, they get a good hang of the students who could campaign for the parent party in other, bigger elections. The student positions are also meant to train them in the finer nuances of politics and the various responsibilities that come with it. In doing these, large parties create a strong, responsible, and loyal cadre base for themselves.

Second, they are meant to serve as a mechanism for dialogue between the student community and the administration. The elected representatives are responsible for ensuring student welfare, including affordable hostel accommodation, better infrastructure, checking errant fee hikes, and ensuring smooth travel provisions.

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Unfortunately, unions no more operate within their mandate or tenor. The politics of issues has slowly been substituted by the politics of money-and-muscle. Parent parties have begun to exercise greater control of their student wing activities, often showering them with freebies like cash, cars, and campaigners.

The Lyngdoh Commission rules

In response to this, the Supreme Court of India, in 2006, directed the then United Progressive Alliance government to audit the DUSU elections by setting up the Lyngdoh Committee under the Ministry of Human Resource Development.

The recommendations offered by the committee since have become the stipulated regulatory framework for public universities to conduct student union polls across the country. However, the Lyngdoh rules remain confined to paper, with most large student parties still overstepping their brief and spending lavishly on winning votes.

For instance, a part of the Clause 6.3.1 of the Lyngdoh Commission Report reads:

“During the period of the elections no person, who is not a student on the rolls of the college/university, shall be permitted to take part in the election process in any capacity.”

However, the main student parties in Delhi University have repeatedly violated this clause, even triggering several instances of violence within the campus. Very often, prior permission is given to many outsiders to enter colleges during the elections, mostly to campaign for their candidates.

Further, Clause 6.6.3, which states that “the candidate may be nullified from the elections in case of excess expenditure or non-compliance”, and Clause 6.6.4, which “recommends the prevention of flow of funding from the political parties” have also been routinely bypassed by both student parties and the administration.

The committee’s recommendations are meant to ensure that DUSU (and other student unions) remains accessible to those who neither have political support nor resources to run big campaigns. Yet, several clauses in the Lyngdoh Committee Report, which were accepted by the apex court, are evidently impractical.

Flaws in the Lyngdoh rules

Clause 6.4.1 states:

“It is recommended that the entire process of elections, commencing from the date of filing of nomination papers to the date of declaration of results, including the campaign period, should not exceed 10 days.”

This severely stagnates the electoral outreach process, disallowing student candidates from properly communities their political ideologies and agendas to their student electorates.

Clause 6.4.2 reads:

“It is further recommended that elections be held on a yearly basis and that the same should be held between 6 to 8 weeks from the date of commencement of the academic session.”

This is another problematic provision. Students who have graduated from school and have just joined college need time to get used to the campus environment and functioning, and identify key areas that warrant action. For this, even a maximum period of 8 weeks is insufficient.

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Another provision, Clause 6.5.1, deals with the “Eligibility criteria of the candidates”. It specifies stipulates the maximum age group of undergraduates as 17-21, postgraduates as 24-25 years, and research students as 28 years.

This is a considerable setback for those coming less privileged sections of the society. Many a times, students from the economically and socially depressed classes are unable to pursue continuous education due to structural limiting factors, thus also delaying the entry age to college. The age limits, hence, further limit such students’ ability to play an active role in campus affairs.

Clause 6.5.6 says:

“The candidate shall have one opportunity to contest for the post of office bearer, and two opportunities to contest for the post of an executive member…”

By limiting the space to be elected or re-elected despite good work, the clause reduces the ability of the student leaders to work and challenge the administration at length. Such clauses further weaken student groups, forcing the voters to look for a new candidate every year who, in all probabilities, will not be an experienced activist.

According to clause 6.6.1 of the LCR, “the maximum expenditure which can be spent by a single candidate is Rs. 5,000/-.”

Although Rs 5,000 is a significant amount, it is unrealistic for elections.  There are 77 colleges affiliated to Delhi University and five other recognised institutes. While the north campus colleges are neighbours to each other, south campus colleges are nowhere close to one another. The cost of travelling from one college to another for campaigning itself would be higher than the stipulated amount.

So, candidates often do not find the time to visit each college, because of which many resort to a polarising form of electoral politics. Divisive components like caste and religion are employed to woo voters – practices that violate the Lyngdoh code of conduct (for example, Clause 6.7.1). The result is a thoroughly polarise, rather than aware, electorate.

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Further, Clauses 6.7.5 and 6.7.6 state that only “handmade posters”, not printed ones, can be used for campaigning, that too in “certain places” in the campuses.

If candidates plan to make a maximum of 30 posters per college, then that would mean that they would have to make about 2100 posters for the full campaigning. That is indeed an ambitious brief and a massive wastage of time. Besides, just 30 posters for one college is insufficient. Because of the impracticality of Clause 6.7.5, violation of even the next clause i.e. Clause 6.7.6 remains rampant.

Clause 6.7.14 states:

“all candidates shall be jointly responsible for ensuring the cleaning up of the polling area within 48 hours of the conclusion of polling.”

This mandatory stipulation further adds to the candidates’ overall costs as clean-up of the entire university after the polls could be a daunting task.

What next?

The Lyngdoh rules, as they are today, warrant several urgent reforms in order to make campus politics and electioneering more efficient.

The elections should be held at the end of the academic session.

Besides, the campaign duration needs to be relaxed.

Elections should be held in two phases: one for only the north campus and the other for the south, with different campaigning time for each. However, both phases should culminate within 3-4 weeks, thus preventing yearlong chaos and disruption in the academic affairs of colleges.

The restriction on not running again should also be removed. This would allow genuinely efficient candidates to either continue their tenure in office or run again if she/he has lost once. This would improve the quality of the student administration in universities.

Ensuring that youth political parties have no link with major parties is significant. This is to prevent political nepotism, as more often than not, party tickets are given to already powerful and influential individuals rather than the genuinely meritorious. Such networked patronage closes the door for those who wish to enter politics but enjoy no political capital.

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Women candidates are taken as an emerging factor of demographic change in politics. Yet, out of twenty two women colleges in Delhi University, only five are affiliated to DUSU. This goes back to the dominant patriarchal assumption that women are fit for the heat of politics. So, at least one out of the four top posts in the central students’ panel should be reserved for women.

Further, strict punitive action should be taken against all those who engage in violence during campaigning and they should be barred from standing up for elections.

Apart from the academic requirement, political debates among the candidates is crucial. Hence, a possible, albeit radical, move could be to broaden the students’ unions’ mandate to allow them to exercise agency in bringing reforms in the overall educational system that the university follows. This should, however, be done only after prior discussions and expert consultations.

The government and the apex court must ponder upon revisiting the Lyngdoh rules to bring about thorough reforms in the university political system, including for Delhi University, before the next election season. Otherwise, student representation and welfare will continue to be hijacked by vested political interests and disproportionately powerful entities.

Apoorva Iyer is a student of Political Science at the University of Delhi.

Featured image: The University of Delhi main building, housed in former Viceregal Lodge (1912–1931) | Wikimedia Commons