Ban on students’ union polls sees parties scrambling to identify youth leaders

In many parts of the country, the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections is witnessing an injection of young blood, with youth leaders such as Kanhaiya Kumar and Shehla Rashid being projected onto the national stage. They are expected to make their electoral debut this year. In Karnataka, however, parties are scrambling to find fresh faces. Veterans are attributing the political vacuum to the ban on student union elections in State universities.

Political activists argue that the ban has not only raised barriers for the entry of student leaders into politics but also skewed the profile of new entrants, with parties turning to businessmen and political families for candidates. “The absence of young leaders in the organisation coupled with the rising cost of elections is seeing political parties tilt towards moneyed businessmen or contractors,” said a senior political leader from a national party.

An aspiring candidate from a national party believes that the political landscape is loaded against grassroots activists. “The cost of elections has increased several folds and a candidate is expected to foot most of the bill. Even organisational posts are cornered by those from political families. Youth wings of all three major parties have been filled by those from political families,” he said.

Harsha Narayan, State secretary, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, said giving students the responsibility at a young age would help them stay motivated. “The average age of the candidates would come down, and it would curb dynastic politics,” he said.

Across parties, the crop of current leaders in the State — Siddaramaiah, P.G.R. Scindia, B.K. Hariprasad, H.M. Revanna, K.R. Ramesh Kumar, and R. Ashok — and deceased leaders Jeevaraj Alva and Anant Kumar have had their roots in students’ union elections. “The elections provide an ideological grooming for leaders because of the issues that are debated. In their absence, even those who overcome the entry barrier and enter the fray are divorced from the ground reality. They are not adequately groomed in the party’s ideology,” said Syed Naseer Hussain, a former Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union (JNUSU) president and a Rajya Sabha member from the Congress.

Mr. Hussain started his career as a student leader in Mysuru. He argued that without this framework, candidates who get elected also tend to fall prey to the belief that their work is primarily to provide civic infrastructure, with no commitment to issues such as land and labour. “Organisational grooming in political parties alone is not good enough,” he said.

Several members of the Congress, BJP and JD(S) have been batting for students’ union elections to be reintroduced.

H.S. Manjunath, State president, National Students’ Union of India, and one of the student leaders to be fielded by the Congress in 2018 Assembly polls, described the experience as a stepping stone to mainstream electoral politics.

Banned in early 1990s

Students’ union elections were banned in the early 1990s as they were seen as being responsible for perpetuating caste-based violence in higher education institutions. Higher Education Minister G.T. Deve Gowda had said in November last that the government would lift the ban as it wanted more youngsters to get into politics. At that time, he had said the department would frame guidelines to ensure no untoward incident takes place on college campus.

Mr. Hussain said they have been lobbying with successive governments to re-introduce students’ union elections. “There are several reports on students’ union election reforms, including one by the J.M. Lyngdoh committee. We need to structure the elections in such a way that it is centred on debates, and prevent the role of money and muscle power,” he said.


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