Monday, November 29, 2004

an american student gets an education in indian politics

(This article appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education in December 2004).

Delhi, India
Last month Tyler Walker Williams, a 26-year-old graduate student who had earned his bachelor's degree at the University of California at Berkeley, campaigned to represent the School of Languages, Literature, and Culture Studies in the student union at Jawaharlal Nehru University, in New Delhi.

Although he is American, Mr. Williams says he ran for office because he wanted to push for an increase in scholarships for deserving students and for improvements to the library. But he unwittingly kicked up a row at his university by entering the election, illustrating how closely student campaigns mirror national politics in India.

Just five months after the deposed Bharatiya Janata Party had protested the Congress (I) Party's possible selection of Italian-born Sonia Gandhi as India's prime minister, the party's student wing cried foul over Mr. Williams's nomination.

Arguing that the student union's constitution bars persons of foreign origin from seeking elected office, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad tried to block his campaign before it began. The student party also said it would file a case against Mr. Williams based on the Indian Constitution, which bars foreigners from competing in any elections.

Mr. Williams ran as a representative of the All India Students' Association, the student wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), which calls for armed revolution to achieve class equality. His supporters brushed aside the protests, arguing that the student union did not bar any student, Indian or foreign, from campaigning for office.

In the end, the controversy fizzled out when Mr. Williams was defeated by the Parishad party's candidate. But he found his introduction to the hurly-burly of Indian politics an interesting learning experience.

"Although in the U.S. there are campus Republicans and Democrats, those groups are small and have virtually no involvement with national politics," Mr. Williams says. In India, however, the affiliation of student parties to national parties "is a good thing for the simple reason that politics on campus is connected to politics outside."

He cites the example of the Hindu-fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party government in India before it lost in May's national elections. "It wanted to and did change curricula and tried to get educational and cultural bodies running to its agenda," he explains.

In America, says Mr. Williams, students are not nearly as involved with the machinery of national politics as they are in India: "Students in the U.S. are difficult to mobilize. ... India is way ahead of the U.S. as far as student politics goes."