9 Sept 2023
What's in a name?
The Election season is back in DU after a long hiatus, and it's back with a vengeful fervour. While for any UG student, all of this must feel quite foreign, for veterans, including students pursuing post-graduate studies or even the staff, have had more polarising views in regard to the scale of the canvassing. Some say that while the grandeur and pomp haven't returned since COVID, the reach of elections and, along with that, electioneering has undoubtedly surpassed that of previous editions. The practice of plastering almost every nook and cranny of visible(and sometimes non-visible, unreachable; frankly bizarre) real estate with posters is going ahead full steam; the other usual suspects also make a prominent appearance- visiting cards(often thrown at the air by overly enthusiastic supporters trailing their netajis in lieu of rose petals ala royalty), Billboards(stationary and mobile) bands of drumbeaters, sloganeers and other assorted canvassers(true believers and political operatives alike). Some new innovations make an entrance- either totally avant-garde or refinements of older techniques, amongst which are- hyperlocal campaigning(a phenomenon where campaigning is precision targetted towards a particular political group within the wider community), online canvassing, social media ad buys etc.
All of this is just some background information that almost anyone would be able to gather, even if they are an outsider to the whole DU election ecosystem; however, it was still important to lay down to build upon the main theme of this article- which is to emphasise that even though time seems to be progressing and student politicians have evolved with time; their core goals and strategies have remained the same.
Let me substantiate this by taking up a particular issue that has long been synonymous with election campaigning- The prominence of highlighting the name of the candidate on any and all promotional material.
Now, this may seem ordinary, and it's widely accepted that it is necessary to highlight the name of the candidate because in student elections, votes are given directly against the candidate’s name on the EVM/ballot paper rather than how in state and national elections the symbol of the candidate’s party is present on the EVM(in addition to the name of the candidate).
Thus, on the surface, it may not appear that this should be problematic; however, when one takes a broader viewpoint, this tactic seems quite absurd from an electoral viewpoint. let me explain by first asking a basic question- What is the main motive behind campaigning?
If one answers this by saying- “to win elections” that would be a gross oversimplification or rather it would be more accurate to state that the statement lacks weight since it doesnt ask for or define what is campaigning as a pre-requisite before claiming that its a means of ‘winning elections’.
Let me fill in the blanks so as to better understand what campaigning is and why it is needed.
Henry E. Brady, Richard Johnston, and John Sides, in their paper titled ‘Study of Political Campaigns’ stated that there are two conceptually distinct but empirically linked ways of looking at a campaign;
The first perspective holds true when:-
The date of the election is known.
The identity of the candidates is known.
Candidates are available to spend virtually all of their time getting (re)elected.
Certain actions that are normally unregulated are now regulated and, in some cases, forbidden—for example, fund-raising and spending.
The other perspective would identify a campaign as a period of heightened intensity before a political choice.
These still would constitute academic definitions for the phenomena/event of campaigning, but they fail to describe what campaigning is and what are its various dimensions.
After all campaigning is just a big battery of various advertisement efforts, information disbursal schemes, canvassing and even entertainment.
A campaign can not succeed if it merely focuses on any one single element while neglecting the others.
I mean this is how a typical campaign is supposed to be when its held for a conventional political office.
But when it comes to the DUSU elections, it's pretty strange indeed- Firstly DUSU election campaigning season can be roughly divided into two campaigning for the central posts and campaigning for the college level posts.
The former almost always steals the limelight, while the latter is something that is in many ways more impactful and important for a student’s quality of life.
Secondly, it can be seen that the college-level campaigns are almost always much more perennial in spirit compared to the central-level campaigning since the candidates who stand up for the college-level polls are intricately involved in the day-to-day issues happening within said college owing to the fact that they are students of that college, and are thus intimately aware of general happenings and student sentiments.
The central-level aspirants are much more politically inclined, with their approach and methods closely mirroring conventional politicians more or less in candour and conduct.
However, this is me diverging- the point is that- The candidates who vie for the central-level posts are the closest you are going to get to someone resembling a professional politician while still maintaining the veneer of being a student.
This naturally means that their campaigning methods should come from the playbook of said professional politicians, but strangely enough, it doesn't, at least not exactly.
The choicest way of political campaigning employed by such student politicians seems to be just to plaster their name across any conceivable square inch of space around the campus and even beyond; vandalism of public and private property with graffiti and oceans of posters is something which has become so normalised that most people don't even bat an eye or raise a meagre protest, however, this doesn't stop these hooligans from still doing such things covertly mostly under the cover of darkness so as to maintain plausible deniability ( believe it or not, when candidates are asked about thier stance on their names being used as an acessory of vandalism, their most common retort is to shift blame by saying that this is an act by their opponents)
This mere act of vandalism is condemnable on its own, however- it would have certainly been justifiable if it was genuinely being used for ‘political’ campaigning, as in- for propagating political messgaes and for making the political platforms of the candidates/parties known, however this has been rarely ever been the case as most of these posters, or for that matter any elctioneering Paraphernalia mostly have very similar designs- with the main focal point of them being the candidate’s name in bold and prominent font size. Other than that it may include a utterly generic phrase such as join X ( X being the ‘student party’ the candidate is associated with) or some slogan, but all of these are background elements, the focal point is always the name of the candidate; during canvassing too the advocates of various candidates always devote a disproportionate amount of time blaring out the name of the person contesting rather than more pertinent details such as the issues they are targeting or how they are planning to tackle the challenges ahead.
Now this strategy does have some rationale behind it, as a 'political worker' deeply connected in the campaigning scene explains on the condition of anonymity.
"Most Students aren't very Politically aware, nor do they care too much to make an effort to learn about the political process, thus by repeatedly reinforcing the name of our candidate we make ensure that the students think that our candidate is popular and thus worth voting for."
This statement not only speaks of the ignorance of the supposed educatioanlly elite classes of India when it comes to basic political matters where they have a direct stake in and a ability to influence; This also points out to the reprehensible state of affairs vis a vis the duty of student political parties and the students who are infact politicaly educated towards fellow students. The student parties in my opinion are culpable in not only sustaining this culture of political blindness but they are infact exacerbating it by their campaigning methods.
A case can very well be made that they are infact benefiting from this- the mainstream political parties are aware that they enjoy an monopolistic position within the power structures they compete with each other for, they are also aware that its very difficult to maintain a continuously feasible competition with their rivals based purely on ideology and policy( this fact is made worse by the fact that the term lengths of officebearers is just 1 year)- afterall how many times can the same old issues be dredged up before the voters grow tired of it. Thus these startergists have thought its better to simply discount and demphasise the political element while campaigning in favour of more simplistic and fundamentalist factors. The way to do this- Focus on the name.
By laying emphasis on the name of candidates alone the whole scope of discussion and thought shifts from critical political debate to more reductive considerations such as regionalism, casteism, communalism etc.
The Name of a candidate often paints a vivid picture of the kind of information being peddled at priority by political operatives- caste, community, state of origin etc.
The Voter is disempowered to ask more relevant questions from said candidates due to a lack of opportunities to actually meaningfully engage with said candidates either directly via Q&A sessions(townhall style or otherwise) or indirectly through organised debates, Press Interviews etc; after this the voter is manipulated to place a greater amount of attention to trivial things such as the Candidate’s personal reputation, non political activities they are involved in etc.
This subverts the true core purpose of student democracy and politics. Student democracy isnt only supposed to provide a means for the establishment and perpetuation of a political institution for a degree of self-governance; rather it is supposed to be a learning opportunity for our youth so that they can be model leaders in the future and be the change that the entrenched political classes of old couldnt be. However as we can see all indications show that the manner in which these student politicians carry out their business is much more murky and deplorable manner than most professional politicians.
It would be accurate to label this as a vicious cycle where the political empowered classes actively work towards keeping the masses in the dark and emerging beneficiaries at the end of it- a paradoxiacal catch 22 indeed. Resolving this or bringing behavioural reform can only be manifested if there is a grassroots sentimental shift, where a large number of ordinary students get engaged not only in the political process but also with political issues broadly.
Making this possible again would require institutional support- wherein the Univeristy authorities foster the spirit of debate and try to develop not only students’ scientific temperament but also their social and political temperament.
Secondly the student politcial parties who often act as the gatekeepers of the whole polticial scene must realise (or be made to realise) that with the immense amount of clout they enjoy they have certain obligations too, otherwise over time they themselves will become irrelevant.
Candidate centered campaigning is often said to be the death knell of party centered politics, wherin individual candidates become larger than the ideas they represent; thus over time individual candidates might find that associating themselves with certain student parties isnt all its made out to be, another more likely phenomena which is certainly playing out even today is that certain political leaders will come to be ‘faces of the parties’ or marquee faces who will wield an disporportioante influence within their party based solely on their popularity(which in turn is manufactured in large part and perptuatued by the party itself)
Student Political Parties must be stopped from turning into the Ouroboros which brings forth its own eventual downfall under the illusion of short term working success.
In conclusion we can say that the wider political culture within the DUSU election sphere is certainly problematic and the problems arent transient, many of them are deeprooted and have been present within the system since a very long time. The motivation to fix these problems have been fleeting and occasional, and have been largely ineffective because they often have been pushed from the top down instead of bottom up (instiutional push for reform such as by Univeristy authorities can only go so far without cooperation or desire by students themselves).
The reforms which have been instituted(or recommended) have often faced strong pushback from entrenched political elements ( parties, pressure groups etc.) wherein they assume the mantle of being the mouthpiece representing the sentiment of students even though the efficacy of the same is forever suspect.
Thus the reform has to be behavioural more so than institutional for it to be truly effective, and doing this shall be a monumental task.
This piece expresses the opinions of the author alone and not S.C.A.R.
S.C.A.R neither endorses nor discredits any claims or opinions made in this write-up.