JNU students’ union takes campaign against Modi to Varanasi

(Excerpts of interview with JNUSU President Akbar Chawdhury by Pallavi Polanki in Firstpost, April 25, 2014)

Q: What is the plan for Varanasi?

A: We are in the middle of a very big election and all you hear everywhere is ‘Modi Modi Modi’. JNU is a politically vibrant campus and our students union has a mandate to fight for secularism and against fascism. We are going to Varanasi to demonstrate against fascism. We are going in two phases. The first on 28 April comprising a few professors and students’ union members. A second batch will leave from Delhi on 6 May, when most students would have finished their exams. We are planning to take around 100 students from JNU. Today no matter where you look, be it Facebook, websites, on the Metro, all you see is Modi. No debate is taking place. The BJP released its manifesto after the first phase of polling had started. It is clear that they are fighting this election not on the basis of issues but in the name Modi. Their answer to all questions is ‘Modi’. While they don’t want to talk about the 2002 riots, though it is an issue that voters must keep in mind, the ‘Gujarat development model’ should be debated and discussed. How feasible is this ‘development model’ for India. Modi’s campaign is being bankrolled by the corporates. And yet, the debate has been reduced to two faces – Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi, who has been left far behind in race. We are going to Varanasi with an ‘anti-Modi’ plank and we will take our campaign to students and young people. Let’s see how much we can contribute to this election.

Q: This is the first time JNUSU has taken its campaign to another city. Why?

A: Our mandate is the JNUSU constitution. When Modi came to Delhi for the first time, the JNUSU held a ‘march of secularism’ on the previous day. When Modi came to SRCC, Delhi University, for the first time, then too we held a protest and opposed Modi’s use of academic spaces to promote himself. In the same spirit, we believe that it is important to contest his claims. A hype has been created around Modi and there is a manufactured debate around him. We are trying to reclaim our democratic space and raise our voice.

Q: What are your concerns when it comes to Modi and his campaign?

A: We feel that elections are not a fight between individuals. People don’t want the Congress party because of its corruption record but that does not mean they want the BJP. We want that our elections be fought on issues such as education, employment. But today, it has turned into a presidential-style election that is devoid of issues. People are being asked to vote for a name. This is not good for our democracy. People are being asked to forget 2002 riots. But when you listen to Modi’s speeches, there are obvious communal overtones. In his speeches, he says a ‘pink revolution’ (reference to meat exports) is going on and that there is no more talk of a ‘white revolution’. I am amazed that in India we have a political leader who for the first time is pitting farmers against minorities. There are leaders in the BJP who are talking of sending people to Pakistan. And it is not minorities alone that Modi is a threat to. Here is a man who put the entire state machinery to stalk a woman. There are protests inside Gujarat today led by farmers and labourers. Each one of us will have to think about what we are bringing upon ourselves by voting for Modi. That is why it is our responsibility, our duty, that we take our message to the people. It is ultimately up to them what they decide.

Q: Who are you primarily targeting with this campaign?

A: We want to hold discussions with students. We will go to BHU. We also want to visit places in and around Varanasi, go to the nearby villages. We want to go places where there is an information deficit. We want to inform people what the real truth behind the campaign is.

Q: Among the student community too Modi has become a very polarising figure. How do you plan to get past this?

A: People that I’ve spoken to in Banaras tell me that they don’t have space to put forward their views. Discussions are ending up in fights. But this is not new. In Delhi, we have seen how the ABVP functions and we know they prefer muscle over logic. I’m challenging them to come and have a debate. What is your idea of nationalism? What is your vision for this country? There are voters who want to participate in meaningful debates. We want to reach out to them. Yes, it is going to be difficult and it could get ugly but that is how politics is in our country and there is no escaping it.

Q: What will be the highlights of your campaign against Modi?

A: The Gujarat model is being touted as being the best model. We want to deconstruct this model. In the Human Development Index, Gujarat is at the 11th position. In education and health, how is Gujarat better? In higher education, in India the average enrollment rate of Muslims is 20 percent. In Gujarat, it is 17 percent. These are NSSO figures. In the Global Hunger Index, Gujarat is among the bottom five states. And Modi’s response to that is that women in Gujarat are beauty conscious and therefore they are starving. This is his defence. The Gujarat government is giving public money to companies. This is the model Congress has tried to gradually bring in. It is a model that has only increased the gap between the rich and poor. And given Modi’s authoritarian streak, what we suffered under ten year rule of the Congress, he will ram through in five years.