As the country waits for the Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora to visit the troubled state of Jammu and Kashmir on March 4-5 after which he will announce the Lok Sabha election schedule, West Bengal’s fiery chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who is a prime ministerial possibility should the united anti-BJP parties (mahagathbandhan) win General Election 2019, is fighting on two fronts in West Bengal. This two-fronts battle has the potential to cloud her prime ministerial ambitions.
Even as Banerjee and leaders of her Trinamool Congress party (TMC) are trying to stitch an alliance of diverse political parties together, they are under fire from national allies — Congress and CPM (Communist Party of India-Marxist) — because of a chit fund scam in which her party members are allegedly involved.
An incident of student unrest at Jadavpur University — one of the few surviving top-ranked higher education institutions of West Bengal — on February 19 has created another major problem for Banerjee and the ruling TMC, now in its second term of office in West Bengal after it dramatically ended 34 years of uninterrupted rule of the CPM-led Left Front coalition over the state in the legislative assembly election of 2011.
On February 19, during an agitation of CPM and Left Front students demanding student union elections, JU vice chancellor Suranjan Das was injured and had to be hospitalised. The students had surrounded the vice chancellor demanding formal student union elections. In May 2017 the TMC government had banned student union elections (following recommendations of the J.M. Lyngdoh Commission appointed by the Supreme Court in 2006) and restricted students’ participation in varsity governance to representation by students nominated by the vice chancellor and faculty to student councils.
The back story of the on-going agitation for representative students’ union elections is that in July 2017, the TMC implemented the Lyngdoh Committee’s recommendations and promulgated the West Bengal Universities and Colleges (Composition, Functions and Procedure for Elections to Students’ Council) Rules 2017. The rules laid down a uniform indirect system of elections to student bodies and banned students unions backed and funded by political parties.
However, the results of a two-day referendum conducted on January 30-31 by students in Jadavpur University indicated that 97 percent of the 9,176 students who voted, favour representation by directly elected student unions rather than student councils. This prompted the February 19 fracas on the JU campus which resulted in the alleged injury to vice chancellor Suranjan Das.
Informed observers are of the opinion that revival of the call for direct student union elections by CPM-aligned student organisations is a strategy of the discredited CPM/Left Front parties to reassert their power and influence in the state’s higher education institutions prior to the state assembly elections due in 2021. With the TMC’s Chhatra Parishad (youth wing) steadily extending its power and influence in student councils under cover of the Lyngdoh Committee’s rules, the CPM leadership, drawing inspiration from Maharashtra which has re-introduced direct student union elections, is keen to reassert its continuing dominance of West Bengal’s higher education institutions, once widely admired for academic excellence but notorious from the 1970s for campus politics and violence.
But with TMC having to win at least 35 of West Bengal’s 42 seats in the Lok Sabha in General Election 2019 scheduled for May, for Banerjee to be in the running for the prime minister’s office should the anti-BJP mahagathbandhan win a majority in the Lok Sabha, the TMC government is highly unlikely to allow CPM-affiliated student unions to gain ground in the state’s higher education institutions.
Baishali Mukherjee (Kolkata)