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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 48 November 25, 2023

Opportunities, Optics and Identity: Vignettes from the Delhi University Students Union Elections 2023 | Radhika Kumar, Gaurav Raj, Kashish Sharma et. al.

Saturday 25 November 2023


by Radhika Kumar, Gaurav Raj, Kashish Sharma, Priyanshu Vats, Sanskriti, Shubhangi Saini, Shantanu Deepak, Sonakshi Agrawal and Yashasvi Bhatnagar


The university is an important space that enables student initiation into democratic politics and youth activism. Starting in 1949, the practice of holding elections to a student’s union enabled cultivation of student leadership. As the university expanded and voters increased, the scale of student mobilisation and campaigning enhanced manifold. In the 2023 elections, there were about one lakh student voters. The elections consequently came to be dominated by the two party-backed groups namely the NSUI and the ABVP. This is because they had the resources to sustain an intensive and wide-ranging campaign. Also, The bi-polarity of the contest has meant that smaller and alternative ideology groups as well as independent candidates are unable to compete at the level of the university. Further, amongst candidates there has also been disproportionate representation of certain dominant castes who hail from the National Capital Territory region. The influence of money and muscle has led to the rise of ‘netas’ or professional student politicians. However, following the adoption of the Central University Entrance Test (CUET), there is a discernible change in the regional profile of students. There are now more students coming in from the eastern parts of Uttar Pradesh, from Bihar and Jharkhand who are often collectively referred to as the ‘Purvanchalis’. In this election they demanded that party-affiliated groups nominate Purvanchali candidates. While this demand reaffirms the dominance of ‘identity politics’ it may also be indicative of a change, in terms of which caste and which class comes to shape electoral politics in the university.

Keywords: Delhi University, students’ union elections, campaigning, mobilization, political identity.


Elections to the Delhi University Students Union (DUSU) elections were held on 22 September this year. Elections took place after a hiatus of 3 years and generated a great deal of excitement amongst students. Elections were conducted for posts at two levels namely college and university. At the university level the posts for the central panel were of president, vice president, secretary and joint secretary. At the level of colleges, apart from these four posts, elections were also held for two central councillors. EVMs were used for voting for the central panel while paper ballots for college level elections. 52 colleges as well as students from various university departments and centres participated in the elections. The vote percentage was 42% which was an improvement over the voter turn-out in 2019 which was 39.90% but was lower than the voter turnout in 2017 and 2018. We present here some vignettes of the election from the south campus of the university based on conversations with students and candidates.

Varied contours of the election campaign: Optics, issues and finances

Campaigning for the election kickstarted with the arrival of first year students in mid-August. Hence the campaign ran for over a month. Across colleges, freshers were greeted by assistance and recruitment desks set up by various student groups and clubs such as the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the National Students’ Union of India (NSUI), the Students Federation of India (SFI), the All-India Students’ Association (AISA), the Happy Club, the Ignite club, Iconic club, and others. While the student groups are affiliated to various political parties/organisations, the clubs may often draw on caste or region-based affiliations. These affiliations are discernible by the social media profiles of those heading these groups. Further these clubs are known to celebrate the anniversaries of historical leaders belonging to their community which is also suggestive of how identity shapes the contours of the clubs. Most of these clubs have come up in the past decade. They have diversified the way in which students may be mobilized. They often share notifications and other college updates through WhatsApp groups. These clubs are not affiliated to political parties. However, they do mobilise support in case a student member decides to contest the election. They rally support even if a member decides to contest the election with the ABVP, NSUI or other party affiliated groups.

The party affiliated groups usually announce the panel of nominees following consultations with the parent political party. The nomination process may also include looking at the work that the student has done with various voluntary organisations. For instance, the ABVP has many affiliated groups such as the Students for Sewa (SFS) including the Ritumati Abhiyan and the Students for Development (SFD). In the case of NSUI, student leaders from other states often visit college campuses to ascertain the popularity of prospective candidates. Student members who are with a party affiliated group but do not get a nomination may also contest as independents. College based cultural clubs and societies are also known to influence voters.

In the beginning of September, campaigning took on more definite contours. The most visible part of the campaign was the carpet bombing by paper flyers, banners, and cards; luxury cars and tractor rallies; playing of drums and even celebrity endorsements. Inter group rivalry was also on display, as the ABVP and NSUI candidates would tear down each other’s posters in the night while a fresh set of posters would be pasted the next morning. The poster war and defacing of college walls, blackboards and benches was criticized by many of the student respondents. They pointed out that not only did these posters involve waste of paper but also dirtied the college campus and surrounding residential neighbourhoods. Students also flagged the influence of outsiders in the elections and ensuing scuffles between the main contenders. ‘Violence’ and ‘intimidation’ are known to result in “alienation of common students from the whole electoral process” (Sridhar 2018). Many first year students said that elections had created an atmosphere of fear.

Real time campaigning involved addressing the students in their classes, in the canteen, on the lawns and even outside college. Candidates also conducted marches which would begin from the college entrance gate and include a visit to all the popular areas of the college including the sports ground and the canteen. Instagram, X and WhatsApp were the most favoured social media platforms for campaigning. Campaigning also includes distribution of freebies to entice the student voters. These range from distributing chocolates, pens, diaries, and movie tickets and arranging for excursion trips. Some students also attested to distribution of liquor bottles in the paying guest (P.G.) accommodations during the night.

The multiple ways in which the contestants try to sway the voters has raised the stakes in terms of funding the election and the campaign. When asked about how much money they had spent, most contestants said that they had not spent more than Rupees five thousand which was the expenditure limit fixed by the Lyngdoh committee. However, informally some admitted that expenses incurred for contesting at the university level may run into lakhs of rupees. Therefore, the extent to which a contestant can mobilize monetary resources is an important consideration in bagging a nomination for a post. Also, the Lyngdoh committee recommendations do not permit use of printed material for canvassing. Only handmade posters are allowed within the expenditure limit. To dodge this provision, candidates often misspell their name on the printed material so that their nomination is not cancelled.

Campaign issues flagged by student respondents included rising fees, lack of affordable housing and availability of P.G. accommodation. Poor infrastructure such as dilapidated buildings, inadequate classrooms, and a lack of basic amenities were some of the other issues. A perusal of the manifestoes released by various groups makes it evident that the electoral promises made by them cut across party/group lines. Some of these were special metro and bus passes, free wi-fi across campuses, violence free campus, no-fees hike, round the clock open library, railway reservation counter on campus, active placement cells in all colleges and enhanced accessibility in the college campus for those with disabilities. The ABVP manifesto also included a provision to introduce special scholarships for transgender students. AISA and SFI aimed to roll-back the Four Year Undergraduate Program (FYUP). AISA also promised to promote ‘academic freedom and autonomy of the university.’ Those attempting to reach out to girl students promised installing sanitary pad vending machines, provision for menstrual leave and hostels for girls in all colleges.

Influencers and voter considerations

Social media influencers are used extensively by candidates for the promotion of the candidates. These influencers range from athletes to fitness and fashion bloggers. Another important set of influencers are those who are popular amongst students as ‘Babas’. They may be members of the alumni or have prior experience in contesting elections. They impact the election by mobilizing support for certain key candidates. Oomen (1974; 787) calls such political brokers ‘Thekedaars’ who are either ‘professional student leaders’ or ‘goondas’ (goons). They have seasonal visibility which means that they gain currency only during the elections. Another term often used during the election is that of ‘Pakka Chawal’ which are those candidates who have been preparing for elections for years and are forced to get enrolled into new courses, just to contest elections.

Voter considerations ranged from knowing about the track record of the candidate to voting for student groups based on their party affiliation. Some also said that the candidate’s communication skills and ‘charisma’ was an important consideration as it reflective of the ability of the candidate to convey their interests to the authorities. Another important variable is that of region. As stated earlier, most of the elected members of the DUSU have traditionally come from dominant castes belonging to Haryana, Delhi, and western Uttar Pradesh. However, following the change in examination pattern, namely adoption of the CUET, there are now greater number of the Purvanchalis. In fact, when the ABVP didn’t give a ticket to a Purvanchali they faced a backlash from some of their traditional voters. This was viewed as a betrayal by them. In an attempt at damage control, the ABVP brought in Bhojpuri actor turned politician Ravi Kishan and Manoj Tiwari to perform in a college. The Presidential candidate also sought an endorsement from Ravi Kishan through a video uploaded on YouTube.

Election outcome

The results reflected a domination by the ABVP as they won three posts out of four for the central panel. These were the posts of the President, Secretary and Joint Secretary. The post of Vice-President was won by the NSUI. In 2019, ABVP won three seats while the NSUI won the seat for Joint Secretary. It is also noteworthy that for some posts the AISA and SFI candidates polled fewer votes than the None of the Above or NOTA option. For instance, for the post of joint secretary NOTA votes were third highest. In fact, DUSU elections have effectively become bi-polar with ABVP and NSUI as the two main contending groups. Further in the past 10 years, the ABVP won the post of President seven times. The NSUI it is argued has the financial resources but lacks a dense organization and effective leadership (Oomen 1974: 781). In this election the ABVP leveraged sub-organizations such as the Students for Development (SFD) and the Students for Sewa (SFS) to mobilize students and also scout for prospective candidates.

Many independent candidates who mostly contest for college level elections, expressed pessimism about their future trajectory in student politics. Apart from the fear of failure they also talked about fear of stagnation and lack of opportunities to carve a career in politics. Party affiliated student leaders have also not been able to transition to mainstream politics. Various reasons cited for this include winnability and lack of adequate experience as candidates cannot contest more than once for ‘office bearer’ (Pathak 2023). Many also noted that the election process is exhausting, and it impacts academics and cocurricular activities. Relatively low voter turnout, substantial number of NOTA votes and candidate cynicism reflect apathy amongst students about the electoral process.


If the nature of the DUSU elections were to be explained using visual tropes then it could be best expressed by the Purvanchali term ‘Bhaukaal.’ This term which draws on the local Purvanchali slang refers to someone who has power and control. In the context of elections it is visualised in the form of use of expensive cars, hoardings, loud music and the display of muscle power. More the visibility, more the chances of winning. However the visual may not always reflect the real. As a popular adage goes, “भौकाल के नाम पर वोट दोगे, तो भौकाल के नाम पर वोट लिया भी जाएगा.” This means that if you cast your vote by just looking at the visual representation of a candidate without finding out the work that they did then they will also only focus on creating a visual representation.

(Authors: (Corresponding author) Dr. Radhika Kumar, Professor, Department of Political Science, Motilal Nehru College, University of Delhi, New Delhi. Email: radhikaku[at]; radhika[at] ; and Gaurav Raj, Kashish Sharma, Priyanshu Vats, Sanskriti, Shubhangi Saini, Shantanu Deepak, Sonakshi Agrawal and Yashasvi Bhatnagar are undergraduate students of semester V and III at Motilal Nehru College, University of Delhi, New Delhi)


  • Oomen, T.K (1974): “Student Politics in India: The Case of Delhi University,” Asian Survey, Vol. XVI, No.9, pp. 777-794.
  • Sridhar, V.K. (2018): “Student Mobilizations in the Delhi University Students Union Elections,” The Indian Journal of Political Science, Vol. LXXIX, No.4, October -December, pp.1353-1359.
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