Never take students for a ride. The Student Organisation of India (SOI), a frontal organisation of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), learnt this the hard way. A mixture of arrogance coupled with an inability to read the pulse of the electorate resulted in SOI being handed out a humiliating defeat in the Panjab University Students Council (PUSC) elections recently.
The rout, which would otherwise be considered minor is nature, has now occupied the centrestage of student politics in Punjab. This is because the SAD had earlier projected its victory in the last PUSC elections as a reflection of the mood of the youth in the State.
SOI is a recent entrant in PUSC elections. Two years back when it contested the polls for the first time, it lost narrowly. Last year it won by a handsome margin. This year it was expected it would squeeze through despite various issues including the haughtiness of its leaders many of whom have gun-toting security guards in their wake.
The backlash against brash scions of Akali leaders resulted in the increased vote share of the SFS led by a Dalit activist who finished a close third in the contest for the president’s post
However, it was not to be. Students apparently did not like the fact that the Punjab government had failed to contribute its share of funds to the university amounting to a whopping 250 crore (as claimed). In light of this, the funds spent by the Punjab government (5.5 crores) on providing fans, washing machines, solar water heating systems and a gym in the last one year seemed like an eyewash.
At a more macro level, there seems to be some anti-incumbency feeling against SAD which has rubbed onto SOI.
The elections have thrown up more combinations, all of which are aimed at making the future even more difficult for SOI. The party was not able to win the elections despite a vertical split in the Congress youth wing — NSUI — as well as a strong showing by a leftist student body, Students for Society (SFS). It seems if the NSUI had not been split SOI would have been pushed further down.
Even after the elections, there has been a churning of sorts. The winning front, which includes PUSU as well as the rebel NSUI faction, met Punjab Congress president Capt Amarinder Singh and pledged support to him following an assurance that the Congress would release funds to PU if it comes to power in the State in 2017. The PUSU leadership along with all the elected members of PUSC is meeting all political leaders except the SAD to drum up support against the Akalis in the next assembly elections. This includes meetings with former Akali turned Congressman Manpreet Singh Badal and Simarjit Bains, a member of the Awaz-e-Punjab outfit launched by former cricketer turned politician Navjot Sidhu.
IMPORTANCE OF BEING PU
Panjab University (PU) is situated in Chandigarh which is a Union territory as well as the State capital of both Punjab and Haryana. Elections to the Punjab University Student Council (PUSC) are usually taken as a barometer of the popularity of political parties in Punjab as elections to student bodies are not held in any of the universities in the State. Since students from Punjab comprise the lion’s share of students in the PU, they also have a stranglehold over all the student organisations, whether frontal organisations of the major political parties or independent bodies.
While PUSU is being discredited by many for joining up with the Congress and moving away from its plank to remain apolitical which they say was also a reason for its victory, this move has resulted in a broad based plank against SOI and the SAD. The other notable student body which has put up a good show — SFS is also virulently anti-Akali. Leftist parties had been virtually written off in PU politics but the sheer money-muscle power of SOI as alleged by its rivals, has given a fresh lease of life to the Left.
So why did SOI fail miserably this year despite giving an impression that it had a stranglehold over PU student politics? “You have answered your own question,” says Apkirat Singh, a student political analyst who is also a SOI supporter. He says while the reasons were many, the very fact that SOI had managed to influence everyone including the university administration and the Chandigarh police to give them carte blanche, worked against the organisation. He said even as there was a concerted effort by all other parties to prevent SOI from coming to power, there was resentment in the party against SOI president Vicky Middukhera which was not resolved.
In Apkirat’s view, the new team put up by SOI to contest the polls had more leaders than workers, leading to a fiasco. He says there was also a simultaneous movement by other political parties asking students to go on party-sponsored trips and attend party-sponsored lunches and dinners but vote according to their conscience. “Students are at heart idealists and this appeal had its own resonance”, he adds.
SFS think tank Sachinderpal Pali points out to another factor, which hits out at the very functioning of SAD. He says the entire top leadership of SOI is not only moneyed but belongs exclusively to the jat Sikh landlord class, the very class which rules the State. Most belong to Lambi (the constituency of Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal) or nearabouts and are scions of Akali leaders. Their favourite pastime is roaming around in Mercedes/ BMW/ Audi SUVs in neatly ironed white kurta pyjamas or smart casual tee shirts and jeans. Many are enrolled in courses seeking to study Urdu, French or German. He says the backlash against these brash youngsters resulted in the increased vote share of the SFS and its stunningly good performance. The presidential candidate of SFS — a research scholar in the history department (Amritpal Singh) is a Dalit activist who used a combination of street plays and a dafli (drum) to woo the electorate. Amritpal finished a close third in the contest for the president’s post.
If the PU elections are an indication, SAD will have to go in for a major course correction in its youth leadership to make it more inclusive as well as more representative of the masses. This is important for the party as the gains in the recent years following the good work done by former Youth Akali Dal (YAD) president Bikram Majithia are set to be frittered away by the present crop of youth leaders. The SAD will need to make its youth leadership more aam to get support from the aadmi this winter in the 2017 Assembly elections.