Tejasvi Surya
ABVP : A Critical Reappraisal
This article originally appeared in centreright.in. CRI content has now been subsumed in swarajyamag.com. The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of swarajyamag.com

Writing this part of the 3 part series on the ABVP has been the most difficult. I was apprehensive of the kind of reactions this piece would stimulate by all readers in general and ABVP workers and sympathizers in particular; for after publication of the last part a fortnight ago, which carried only two paragraphs critical of the organization, I received many e-mails and messages sternly denying all the criticism and also personally attacking me for trying to write a piece critical of the organization. While some suggested me to read a few booklets about the organization before attempting to write on it, others felt I was incompetent to write a critical note on the organization as my association with the it has been only for 3 years – they felt three years time is not sufficient to judge the organization. Sadly, none of the responses were at the issues raised in the previous part but were only blind bashing, so they do not merit any response. As a saving solace, I also received a few messages from senior functionaries of the organization, who happened to read the previous piece, telling me they were eager to read the next one. Therefore, in order to make this piece as objective and as close to reality as possible, I contacted almost half a dozen old karyakartas of the ABVP and sought their help for writing this piece.

While all of them were eager to share their thoughts on the same, surprisingly, none of them wanted me to quote or name them in the article. “Why unnecessarily get into the bad books of senior functionaries?” they asked me. However, they all agreed on one point – that critical reappraisals within the organization are rare these days and anyone who criticizes the organization is seen as an adversary; this has made critical reappraisals almost non-existent, they said. The evaporation of the culture for critical introspection within the organization, they feel, is the root for many shortcomings the organization is facing today.

Though this accusation is not wholly untrue, it is true that the organization has made attempts to re-invent itself with the changing times – albeit not wholly successfully. ABVP’s 2003 Shimla Vichar Baitak (Intellectual Discussion) paper says – “This (the ABVP’s) ideological evolution has been possible due to continuous churning of ideas, self-examination, analysis of the situation around and the assessment of organizational strength, conducted by ABVP workers from time to time.” How successful has the ABVP been in this endeavour to re-invent itself is the point of debate.

The primary reason, many say, for ABVP not very enthusiastically welcomed by students in our universities today, the decrease in the quality of people who are joining the organization, the lack of influence of the organization in the sphere of present day public discourse and the very visible disconnect of the organization with the 21st century cosmopolitan youth, is that the intellectual space for inclusion of new and diverse voices has considerably shrunk within the organization. How can the ABVP reclaim its position as one pioneering an ideological thought movement amongst the young?

Firstly, the ABVP must make active and significant inroads into the top universities and colleges in the country. For this to happen, the organization must try bringing, retaining and training student leaders who can, in the first place, take the organization into such campuses. But the organization lacks such students in sufficient numbers today. It is students from such universities and colleges who make noise about issues that ABVP raises so passionately. It is in these campuses that the liberal left types are bred and nurtured.

These students are very vocal – they write about issues on social media, speak in university debates and panel discussions, and also hog the media’s limelight. Without capturing this sphere, the ABVP will be limited to being a student organization that only organizes protests against student bus pass fare hikes. As of today, there is neither an environment nor any training that the organization provides to equip its volunteers to take on this challenge. It is perplexing and extremely disheartening that an organization like the ABVP – in spite of its tremendous reach and resources – has not created a vibrant intellectual platform, like say, the ‘Youth ki Awaaz’- where students can interact and debate on various issues. If the ABVP has to remain relevant in the coming decades, it has to capture this bubble – of which the social media is only an important part. And to tackle this challenge successfully, one must constructively engage with students who can be active in this field. For this to happen, the organization must build an ecosystem which gives enough space for these voices too.

A first step in this direction would be to have more student representation in the National Executive Council – the highest decision making body of the organization. This would help the top leadership assess the changing dynamics in our campuses. Also, students representing varied backgrounds and interests must be selected to the body – it is here that new and diverse voices can be included in the organisation’s fold. This increased representation to students in the NEC will not only make the world’s largest student organization a student organization in the true sense of the term, but will also keep ABVP in touch with the changing aspirations of our students.

The next step would be to rationalize the full time workers workforce within the organization. The ABVP today has a large number of full time workers who are more than 35 years of age in key organizational positions. What sense does it make to have 45 or 50 year olds as senior functionaries of a student organization with a floating population? It is but natural that a large disconnect will then exist between the full time workers and the student population that they try to talk to. The ABVP must make a rule that all full time workers must be within 28 years of age, and on the completion of their 28th year, they must retire from the organization; or nobody stays as a full time worker for more than 5 years in the organization. Though this will be difficult to implement with immediate effect, the process to think in this direction must nevertheless begin immediately. All successful organizations often make efforts at rationalizing their workforce and ABVP must begin its act soon.

The other concern many express is that the organization is losing its space and influence in the popular public discourse narrative today. The reason for this, they say, is that the organisation has not articulated its position as clearly as is needed, on issues of ideological importance. Be it ‘cultural nationalism’, ‘Indianising’ education or its ideas on economics, they feel that the ABVP has not produced enough literature to enable people to understand its position. Many senior karyakartas were also of the impression that many a times, members of leftist organizations seem to have more ideological clarity or at least know what issues to raise to bolster their thought movement than members of the ABVP. They attribute the reason for this lack of ideological clarity to not only leaders of the ABVP but also to the larger lackadaisical attitude of the Sangh Parivar towards intellectual pursuits.

Also, the author personally feels that the ABVP must try voicing its stands on issues that are prevalent in the domain of youth debates in the 21st century urban India. The ubiquitous internet has shrunk the space between urban and rural India and we see many youngsters from rural India actively partaking in discussions on the social media. What is the ABVP’s stand on RTE ? What is the organizations stand on the Govt’s proposal to reduce the age for consensual sex to 16? Nobody knows what the ABVP’s stand on these issues are, for the organization never effectively articulates them. How can the organization remain relevant in the student and youth discourse if such voices are not included in the narrative?

The other point to consider is the influence of the BJP on the ABVP. In the wake of the political change in the country following the emergency period, many student organizations, lured by the proximity to power, were vying with each other for a share of the political power. While some disbanded their organizations to join the government, some others merged with political parties. The relevance of those student organizations more or less ended there.

However, ABVP was clear of its objectives. It stood firm to its commitment that student organizations should remain distanced from partisan politics. It said that it would remain an independent and autonomous student organization. This commitment was again tested during the student union elections. When it appeared that student unions were becoming pawns in the game of power politics and the campus atmosphere was getting vitiated as a result, ABVP decided to stay away from those elections; again reaffirming its commitment to being non-partisan. This staunch position of the ABVP earned it a unique and respected position among all other student organizations, most of which had reduced to being ‘wings’ of political parties. This also gave ABVP a vantage moral high ground – the ABVP was an organization that would not yield to the lure of any political lollipops.

Over the years, however, it appears as though the organization has taken steps away from this staunch principled position. Understandably, it is difficult for the ABVP to not be perceived like that. Forming a part of the large Sangh Parivar, of which even the BJP is a member, the ABVP finds itself in a strange position where it agrees with the BJP on many ideological issues, provides- even if unintended- the BJP with new cadre; but at the same time, is forced to maintain distance from the BJP.

It is to ABVP’s credit that even though being in such a complex position, it has maintained considerable independence, autonomy and distance from the BJP. The BJP has no influence whatsoever on the intra-organisational matters, especially matters concerned with the selection of the office-bearers and such other incidental issues. The organization is also many a times seen protesting against the policies of the BJP – in states in which the party is in power (albeit not as aggressively as against Congress- led Governments).
But this proximity to the BJP has inflicted the ABVP with problems at a different level altogether. This problem is seen more evidently in states in which the BJP is in power.

An old karyakarta, who was himself a full time worker earlier, said that the ABVP should seriously consider getting an empirical study done on the change in the nature of the organization and its workers in states in which the BJP is in power and the states in which the BJP has lost power. Unwanted proximity to political power has had undesirable impact on the health of the organization. He said that while a few karyakartas of the organization can be seen more frequently in Minister’s offices than in the organisation’s karyalaya, the junior karyakartas- many of who are political aspirants- try getting into the good books of the local BJP leaders. Expectedly, this closeness to political power brings its consequent and incidental vices. Many freshers, who join the organization as full time workers join with the hope that they will be gifted with some political goodies or the other. They see the ABVP as a short cut to a successful political career in the BJP. This closeness to political power not only severely impedes the organization’s quality, but more importantly, the moral high ground that the ABVP has – that it stays aloof from partisan politics – will be lost. ABVP will be reduced to being only a student wing of a political party – like the SFI or the NSUI.

Also this closeness to the BJP has had a larger influence on the attitude of the karyakartas of the party. Previously it was professors, academics and public intellectuals who bore a significant influence on the workers of the organization. I have heard from senior karyakartas of how senior professors used to cycle for miles together, carrying a karyakarta as a pillion, to meetings and organizational activities. They nostalgically remember the days when they used to have intellectually stimulating conversations with such professors and public intellectuals. It was, they say, in such informal discussions that the karyakartas could get ideological clarity. The scene is very different today. Aspiring political leaders, local body elected representatives and businessmen bear more influence than academics and intellectuals. Not surprisingly, the space for vibrant intellectual discussions has diminished.

Also, one of the greatest advantages as well as a big limitation of the ABVP is that the organization has to work with a floating population. The disadvantage is that you get a student as an active volunteer for only a few years; it’s difficult to mould them as you wish in that limited span of time. On the other hand, this floating population is a solid advantage as every year, the organization attracts fresh students. And they bring with them, fresh ideas and talent. This is how the organization evolves with the times. However, many a times, the population in the organization just does not float. As a consequence, the organization stagnates. As a result of such stagnation, new talent does not take over, nor do they get encouraged. This tendency has its natural fall-outs; as the new entrants do not find enough space to work autonomously, the organization does not interest them much.
When asked why the organization fails to attract new talent, a few old karyakartas categorically opined that the organization needs to be freed from the stranglehold of the senior karyakartas, who despite having passed out of colleges years earlier, still continue to be ‘student leaders’. The author feels that the senior karyakartas must move into advisory positions and guide the new comers in the organisation’s work, providing the new comers with sufficient autonomy to work. This will make the ABVP a true student organization in both letter and spirit.

This post will not be complete if it does not address the problem of lumpenisation of student activism. The ABVP, unfortunately, cannot shy away from taking a share of the blame for contributing to this sad trend. The odd events of roughing up professors, barging into university campuses and such other aggressive form of protests do m0re harm than good to the image of the organisation. Senior leaders of the organisation must invariably discourage such vigilante and aggressive behaviour by the student karyakartas. Instead, the ABVP must take the lead in building a healthier culture of student activism.

Also, leaders of the ABVP must understand that strength of an organization lies not only in the number of people it can get to attend a protest rally, but more importantly in the kind of space and influence it enjoys in the sphere of public discourse. This quantity versus quality is a very big the puzzle before the ABVP today, and it seems that the organization has chosen the former over the latter in the last few years. However, the ABVP has a rich tradition of nurturing strong leaders who have gone on to become successful administrators in the country. Of late, many feel, the organization has lost the ecosystem within the organization to create such leaders. Nurturing intellectually vibrant thought leaders for tomorrow’s India, must be a prime focus point for the ABVP. How the organization will strike the perfect equilibrium between the two must be a matter of deep concern and debate in the Vichar Baithaks in the future?

Despite all these shortcomings, the ABVP stands out as the largest student organization in the country today. Its reach in terms of numbers is mindboggling. It is also true that the organization is making a conscious effort to strike the quantity and quality equilibrium by organising events like ‘Think India’ – an initiative to bring together students from premier national institutes of the country together and reinventing the ‘Students for Development’ – an initiative to run developmental projects will definitely bear fruits in the long run. The ABVP needs to re-invent itself to stay relevant in today’s times.
For this, the ABVP needs capable, aspirational and visionary leadership at all levels in the organization. In one word, the ABVP desperately needs a Prof. Yeshvantrao Kelkar today.