Ban College Elections? Banish the Thought

sandeep-sir-284x300By Sandeep Sahu

Time was when the college campus was the cradle that spawned the leaders of the future. Before independence, the college campuses were the places where the issues of the day were debated, preparing student leaders for the long struggle ahead. In more recent times, the likes of Prakash Karat, Sitaram Yechury, DP Tripathy at the national level and closer home, our very own Nandini Satpathy, Raja Swain and Prasad Harichandan (to name just three) have all emerged as leaders in the battlefields of college and university campuses.

But what one is witnessing right now is an altogether different phenomenon. Debate and argument have been replaced by fisticuffs and vandalism. In college after college, violence has become the order of the day. Clashes between rival groups of students have broken out at the slightest provocation (sometimes even without any provocation!), campuses have been ransacked and even crude bombs have been hurled with non-students frequently playing a major role in the violence. Colleges have been closed sine die and elections scheduled for October 5 have been countermanded in nearly a dozen colleges after violence marred the campaign.

The quality of the candidates chosen by the student wings of various political parties for various key posts makes one shudder about the future. The good old ‘push cards’ and personal appeals by candidates are now a thing of the past. With political parties game to fishing in trouble waters, money (and even liquor) flows like water in student body elections these days. In the event, the Rs 5, 000 limit set by the Lyngdoh Committee has become a joke.

What makes it particularly murky is the allegation, backed by credible evidence, that violence has been engineered to get elections countermanded in colleges where the ruling party is on weak grounds.

Concerned at the state of affairs, many parents and guardians – and even students, who would rather concentrate on their studies than participate in what they believe is a worthless exercise – have demanded the abolition of student union elections altogether.

Should the demand be accepted?

As I pondered over the demand, I recalled my first year in college. The year was 1976 and the Emergency was in full force. There were no elections that year and the final year graduate student who secured the maximum marks in the high school certificate (HSC) examination was named the president of the students’ union (in the case of my college, it was the adorable Kishor Basa, now professor of Anthropology in Utkal University, who had topped the HSC exams) as per the diktat of the Emergency regime. We, the first year students, never got to know what he or the students’ union he headed did. Having grown up hearing (and occasionally witnessing) stories of how elections were fought in college campuses, we were certainly disappointed by the turn of events.

The next year, elections did take place in the campus as the Emergency had been lifted and the Janata Party government had come to power at the Centre. The atmosphere in the college campus was electric; the excitement among the students palpable. The students wings of political parties (yes, they existed even then!) were on the campaign trail in right earnest. It gave us our first taste of participation in the democratic process. And a real high!

For all the aberrations and degeneration that has set in over the years since then, I, for one, would not support the demand for banishing elections from the college campus. We rue the ugly scenes that are seen in the campuses on election eve. But don’t we all put up with the degeneration of the socio-political system all around us? The degeneration of the college election, after all, is part of the overall degeneration of our society. So, why single out college elections when we are ready to live with the degeneration in every other aspect of life? Why deny the young students their once-a-year occasion to participate in a democratic exercise?

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Of course, there is always room for reforms. May be the Lyngdoh Commission recommendations have outlived their utility and need to be relooked in a bid to minimize – if not banish altogether – the role of money and muscle power in college elections. But banning elections altogether would not be a bright idea. In any case, the student community is never going to allow such a thing.