From open debate to money power, the changing face of Panjab University campus politics
For over a decade now, student wings of well-heeled political parties have been sweeping Panjab University polls, while home-bred outfits have slowly been pushed out of limelight
The “student-centric” polls at Panjab University and city colleges seem to have lost their intrinsic vibrancy and cacophony over the years, which the old-timers blame on implementation of restrictive Lyngdoh guidelines nearly a decade ago and deep-pocketed mainstream parties’ growing interest in student politics.
The over 150-year-old university has been holding student polls for decades now, initially indirect elections, where department representatives would elect the student council. In 1977, these were replaced by direct elections, which got halted briefly due to trouble in Punjab. They eventually resumed in 1997-98, along with emergence of home-grown Panjab University Students’ Union (PUSU) and Students of Panjab University (SOPU).
“Elections in the 80s and 90s were about debates on student-centric issues, with no political interference. Now, with funding from mainstream parties, the culture of freebies and party hopping has set in. From politics of conviction, it has become politics of convenience,” commented Satya Pal Jain, additional solicitor general of India and BJP leader, who remained the general secretary of the PU student council in 1974.
Majority of students on campus and its affiliated colleges come from Punjab and Haryana, but student polls are not held there. Himachal Pradesh is the only state in the region, with significant number of students at PU, where student polls are held.
Parties making inroads since 2010
Leaders say sometime around 2009-10, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) started showing interest in PU politics through its student wing, SOI.
But a major shift came in 2012, when Congress leader Rahul Gandhi came to PU campus and re-launched NSUI. The party went on to win the president’s post in the 2013 polls for the first time and hit national headlines.
Ever since, all major political parties increased their presence on the campus aggressively, with funds no bar.
This left home-bred SOPU and PUSU struggling for survival, and for over a decade now, most elections have been swept by student wings of mainstream parties, the latest being AAP’s CYSS that won the president’s post in 2022 in its maiden foray in PU polls.
“Earlier, mainstream political parties’ interference was less. But now student parties have become direct extension of political parties,” said Mohammad Khaled, a political science professor at PU, adding that the parties brought in huge money, with no checks on how it was being spent.
Navdeep Goyal, a physics professor at PU, who has remained dean student welfare and has supervised polls for years together, agrees that campus polls had been severely politicised.
“Huge flow of funds from political parties in recent years has brought in plethora of problems. The culture of freebies, bribes, paid trips and distribution of liquor is increasing by the year. Now, PU has a mixed electorate — undergraduate as well as post-graduate students. It is easy for parties to target vulnerable Class 12 pass-outs and there is no effort from the university to educate them,” lamented former Congress MLA Kuljeet Nagra, who was the student council president from PUSU in 1992-93.
He added that to make this exercise meaningful, varsity should use social media for debates and educate students about the importance of student polls.
₹5,000 cap on expenditure, ban on recontesting
As violence grew on campuses in late 90s and use of money started coming to light, the Lyngdoh guidelines were enforced in 2005.
The guidelines cap the campaign expenditure at ₹5,000 and bar students from recontesting. Also, an FIR against a student makes them ineligible for polls.
“These guidelines were temporary in nature. But have never been revised. This has stalled the natural progression of a student leader. One can contest the elections just once, even if they remain a PU student for a decade,” said Berinder Dhillon, a Congress leader and a dominant former leader on campus, initially of SOPU, but later credited with reviving NSUI.
Dhillon pointed out that due to PU’s inability and non-emergence of quality leadership, police interference had increased. “Most active student leaders are dubbed as trouble makers and harassed. Little time is given for campaigning. The student polls have been relegated to a yearly ritual by authorities and not an exercise that produces future leaders,” added Dhillon, referring to prohibitory orders imposed by the UT administration this year against assembly of four or more students during polls.