Student Elections in India

By Ragini Nayak

Over 1,40,000 student voters from every nook and corner of the country, 52 affiliated colleges and departments, five campuses spread across seven Parliamentary constituencies, a positive spirit and energy, enthusiastic sloganeering, robust campaigning, healthy competition…. That is Delhi University Students Union elections for you! And I had the honor and privilege of being elected secretary and president of this students’ union which has one of the largest direct electorates in the world.

Student activism is essential for the effective functioning of a vibrant democracy. In a country like India, where 60 percent of its population is below the age of 35, it is essential to develop a culture of political participation and proactivism in the youth and student community. University and college campuses in India act as nurturing and training grounds for holistic development of young citizens. Here students come in contact with real life social, educational, political and other issues. Through the culture of debates and discussions students become conscious of their sociopolitical rights and duties.

Student unions in India act as a bridge between the university or college authorities and the student community. They act as a pressure group to persuade these authorities to listen to the demands for student welfare and provide a platform to voice students’ concerns. These elections help to develop latent leadership potential in youngsters who can become leaders of tomorrow.

There is a general perception that student politics is the launching pad for mainstream politics, but that was not a consideration for me. My interest developed over several years of persistent student-oriented struggle in Delhi University and other college and university campuses across the country. I came to the realization that politics is a field of immense possibilities and this field is in need of young, positive and progressive people.

My journey in student politics began when I joined NSUI (National Students Union of India), the student wing of Indian National Congress, in my first year of college. 

Contesting the DUSU elections on the NSUI ticket was an amazingly enriching experience. Since Delhi University is a central university, students from all parts of the country come to study here and hence, DUSU elections get a national character. The contest is primarily between NSUI and the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad. These elections become extremely important for all the student organizations because winning them would be deemed as proof of nationwide acceptability of the ideology and objectives of not just the victorious student organization and candidates but also of the political party behind them. That is why candidates are chosen with a lot of care and caution. 
I focused on organizing debates, lectures, seminars and peaceful protest marches on relevant issues. I motivated female students to be a part of student activism. My public speaking ability, good academics and habit of showing respect towards my lecturers helped me gain supporters amongst both the student and teaching community. 

I got a lot of support from the students of different colleges who used to come out of their classes to meet me and talk to me when I visited their colleges. This victory came with the realization that power comes with the responsibility to live up to the trust and faith reposed in me by the students. I have played my part as have many other student leaders but there is a lot that still needs to be done in this field.

—Courtesy SPAN.

Student Government in the U.S.

The portrayal of student government in Bollywood movies has been of an activist one, with links to local and state politics. The student government at Columbia University is less glamorous. The issues that we are more likely to discuss are the housing shortfall for students or the funding and organization of the spring concert.

My first campaign was during the first semester of my first year for the post of class president. I was fortunate that I picked the right team for the campaign—especially one of my friends who a very popular student.

The past two years during which I served as class president and as member of the Student Council have been very rewarding. I wanted to be a part of the council in my first semester because I wanted to meet new people and deal with my nervousness regarding studying in a foreign country. My reasons for being part of the council changed when I met my initial personal goals and realized that the council was one of the best ways to contribute to the school that I am so proud to be a part of. 

Some of the challenges we face include a low voter turnout, struggling to get statistical significance in our surveys and to get our elections to be about issues rather than about popularity. But at the same time, the school administration is usually very responsive to our demands and we disagree only when we differ on what is good for the students, which is why we conduct so many surveys. We are fortunate to be empowered financially and to be given the responsibility of distributing student funds to groups and organizations.

Student government for the undergraduates consists of two councils, one for each school. The school of engineering and applied science (SEAS) has the Engineering Student Council (ESC) and Columbia College (CC) has the Columbia College Student Council (CCSC).The structure of ESC and CCSC is almost identical. The primary goal of the council is to address issues that are important to the campus community, plan events and programs for students, and serve as a liaison between students and the university administration. ESC is also responsible for the allocation of student-life fees to the various Columbia governing boards and to student organizations through co-sponsorships.

Student-life fees, approximately $200 per student, is collected by the university on the council’s behalf and is the source of funding for most of the student-run events on campus. Having its own source of funding, independent of the school is probably the council’s greatest source of autonomy.
Elections to the student government happen during the 2nd semester of every year in April for the next year’s council, except for the freshman class council which takes place in the 1st semester in September. There are limits on how much a candidate can spend on his or her campaign and where and how they can campaign. Voting begins immediately after a weeklong campaign and is carried out online. The entire process is reviewed by an independent committee composed of graduating seniors.


October 2012

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