Left Owes Its JNU Win to a Decision Taken During ‘Sedition Saga’

JNU’s Left parties realised early that traditional rivals must unite to defeat an advancing ideological adversary.

4 min read

On Sunday afternoon, at the end of a controversy-marred counting process, Left Unity candidate N Sai Balaji sat on the shoulders of his fellow comrades, flag in hand and ‘lal salaam’ on his lips. The Left had swept the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union (JNUSU) elections yet another year, with Balaji set to become its next president.

But even as Balaji and his mates celebrated their election to the JNUSU – the university’s bastion of resistance against the administration – they would have been grateful for a decision taken by their predecessors in the Left a couple of years ago. Specifically, in the year that JNU students were arrested on charges of sedition and the university was labelled “anti-national” by ministers, anchors and trolls.


The Year Kanhaiya Won

TL;DR: The Left parties in JNU realised early on what the parties in Opposition at the Centre are coming to terms with now, and that too, arguably slowly – That even traditional rivals must come together to defeat a rapidly advancing ideological adversary, or be subsumed themselves.

Observation 1: Left vs Left (Really?)

On 13 September 2015, Kanhaiya Kumar, easily the most recognisable JNUSU president in recent times, was elevated to the top post in Jawaharlal Nehru University’s student body after a tightly-fought race.

Kanhaiya, representing the CPI’s student body AISF, had edged past fellow Left organisation AISA’s Vijay Kumar by a slender margin of 67 votes. But over the (dramatic) course of his tenure, Kanhaiya would realise that his biggest adversary did not lie within the Left.

From ministers in the Modi government, to a Delhi Police bent on acting against him, his primary opponents operated from outside the walls of the university. Even within JNU, it was the ideologically opposed ABVP that proved to be his nemesis more than election rival AISA.

Observation 2: ABVP’s Rapid Momentum

In the same election, the ABVP made a historic comeback into the JNUSU, with Saurabh Sharma being appointed joint secretary, becoming the first ABVP member on JNUSU’s Central Panel in over 14 years.

Sandeep Mahapatra, ABVP’s first and only JNUSU President, had been elected to the post in 2000-2001.

The Inference (That Saved the Left)

JNU’s Left parties realised early that traditional rivals must unite to defeat an advancing ideological adversary.
JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar addresses the media at JNU in New Delhi on March 4, 2016. 
(Photo: IANS)

The Left was under attack, the government was labelling their leaders as “anti-nationals”, primetime news anchors were screaming their condemnations at JNUSU office-bearers Kanhaiya Kumar and Shehla Rashid, and amongst it all, the ABVP was gaining momentum in its campaign against the longtime dominance of the AISF, AISA and SFI.

In 2015, when Kanhaiya Kumar and Vijay Kumar fought it out and came in first and second position respectively, the ABVP was still quite a distance away, not really threatening to dominate or overtake the Left, yet.

But given the propaganda campaign underway against the Left, the AISA and SFI joined hands for the 2016 JNUSU polls.

“Why fear the worst and act preemptively?” dissenting voices within the parties had asked at the time, clearly unenthused with the prospect of fighting not against, but along with their traditional rivals.

But it was that forethought that effectively countered the ABVP’s rapid momentum, numerically and ideologically. From the solitary seat that the ABVP won in 2015, they were back to a clean slate in 2016.

The Results (Of Unity)

  • Left Unity clean sweep in 2016, winning all four seats of the JNUSU Central Panel
  • Left Unity clean sweep in 2017, winning all four seats of the JNUSU Central Panel
  • Left Unity clean sweep in 2018, winning all four seats of the JNUSU Central Panel

Stalling the ABVP

Speaking to The Quint after the 2017 JNUSU results, Nidhi Tripathi, that year’s ABVP presidential candidate argued,

“It is the strength of ABVP’s ideology that has forced so many Left student groups to make an alliance. The sole purpose of their alliance is to defeat the ABVP. Why do they not have the guts to contest separately? I challenge them to do so. ABVP is the most popular student group in JNU.”
Nidhi Tripathi, ABVP Candidate for JNUSU President, 2017

Numerically, Tripathi is not entirely off the mark. Yet politically, she knows that isn’t enough. The Left had successfully staved off the threat from the ABVP, and swept the JNUSU polls clean. That’s all that mattered.


Vote Share Analysis: Left Stronger Than 2017

Votes polled in 2017 (vote share in brackets):

  • Left Unity: 7,219 (39%)
  • ABVP: 3,965 (21.5%)
  • BAPSA: 3,561 (19.3%)

Votes polled in 2018 (vote share in brackets):

  • Left Unity: 9,223 (44.5%)
  • ABVP: 4,507 (21.7%)
  • BAPSA: 2,835 (13.7%)

Observe the numbers carefully.

  1. ABVP’s vote share has remained unchanged from 2017 to 2018. It continues to be at the 21% mark.
  2. What has changed, however, is that the Left’s dominance has increased from 39% to over 44 %, a significant gain of 5 percentage points.
  3. Among the three, BAPSA’s comparative vote share has fallen by around the same amount as Left’s has gone up.
The key takeaway from the year-on-year analysis is that the ABVP’s momentum seems to have been brought to a halt by the strength of the Left parties forming a united front. The political lesson from this cannot be understated.

That forethought and not hindsight saves the day, and the pragmatic approach of “coming together despite differences to not let the ideological adversary win” may seem like a pain to deal with, but is one that is eventually likely to bear fruit.

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