Sunday, November 12, 2006

A Socialist in the American Senate?

Thus spake The Guardian:,,1937064,00.html

He is an unapologetic socialist and proud of it. Even his admirers admit that he lacks social skills, and he tends to speak in tirades. Yet that has not stopped him winning eight consecutive elections to the US House of Representatives.

"Twenty years ago when people here thought about socialism they were thinking about the Soviet Union, about Albania," Mr Sanders told the Guardian in a telephone interview from the campaign trail. "Now they think about Scandinavia. In Vermont people understand I'm talking about democratic socialism."

Democratic socialism, however, has hardly proved to be a vote-winning formula in a country where even the word "liberal" is generally treated as an insult. Until now the best showing in a Senate race by a socialist of any stripe was in 1930 by Emil Seidel, who won 6% of the vote.

John McLaughry, the head of a free-market Vermont thinktank, the Ethan Allen Institute, said Mr Sanders is a throwback to that era. "Bernie Sanders is an unreconstructed 1930s socialist and proud of it. He's a skilful demagogue who casts every issue in that framework, a master practitioner of class warfare."

When Mr Sanders, a penniless but eloquent import from New York, got himself elected mayor of Burlington in 1981, at the height of the cold war, it rang some alarm bells. "I had to persuade the air force base across the lake that Bernie's rise didn't mean there was a communist takeover of Burlington," recalled Garrison Nelson, a politics professor at the University of Vermont who has known him since the 1970s.

"He used to sleep on the couch of a friend of mine, walking about town with no work," Prof Nelson said. "Bernie really is a subject for political anthropology. He has no political party. He has never been called charming. He has no money, and none of the resources we normally associate with success. However, he learned how to speak to a significant part of the disaffected population of Vermont."

Mr Sanders turned out to be a success as mayor, rejuvenating the city government and rehabilitating Burlington's depressed waterfront on Lake Champlain while ensuring that it was not gentrified beyond the reach of ordinary local people. "He stood this town on its ear," said Peter Freyne, a local journalist.

"I tried to make the government work for working people, and not just for corporations, and on that basis I was elected to Congress," Mr Sanders said. He has served 16 years in the House of Representatives, a lonely voice since the Republican takeover in 1994. He has however struck some interesting cross-party deals, siding with libertarian Republicans to oppose a clause in the Patriot Act which allowed the FBI to find out what books Americans borrowed from libraries.

He says his consistent electoral success reflects the widespread discontent with rising inequality, deepening poverty and dwindling access to affordable healthcare in the US. "People realise there is a lot to be learned from the democratic socialist models in northern Europe," Mr Sanders said. "The untold story here is the degree to which the middle class is shrinking and the gap between rich and poor is widening. It is a disgrace that the US has the highest rate of childhood poverty of any industrialised country on earth. Iraq is important, but it's not the only issue."

In a state of just over 600,000 people he also has a significant advantage over his Republican opponent, Rich Tarrant, a businessman who has spent about $7m on his campaign. "Sanders is popular because even if you disagree with him you know where he stands," said Eric Davis, a political scientist at Vermont's Middlebury College. "He pays attention to his political base. He's independent and iconoclastic and Vermonters like that."

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JNUSU Elections 2006, math, "pre-math" and aftermath

Yours truly was a keen participant in the "Dance of Democracy", the JNUSU Election Festival for the past two years in 2004 and 2005. While both the years saw victories at the President's Post by AISA's Mona Das, this year saw the SFI retaining the President's Post after a gap of 2 years, with Dhananjay Tripathi winning the coveted post defeating the AISA's candidate, Awadhesh Tripathi.

The 2005 Election was a victory of sorts for the SFI-AISF combine. Even though they had lost the President's post, data revealed that this happened primarily because nearly 142 votes from the extreme Right JPF were transferred to Mona Das, a consequence of the hatred of the JPF toward the SFI-AISF and its problems with its organization that it broke off from, the ABVP.

SFI-AISF, however instead of being complacent despite winning 3 CP seats and 16 councillors overall/29, realized that this defeat at the Presidential post was clearly more due to a lack of solid agitations for pressing issues, that were part of their erstwhile glorious legacy established in the campus.

What followed therefore was focus on several relevant issues and emphasis on student mobilization for the same. Be it mobilizing students to protest imperialist policies pursued by George Bush during his visit to India, opposing the entry of the ship Clemenceau into Indian waters, articulating the rights of farmers who were committing suicide in hundreds across the country, all these were also some of the main tasks well accomplished by the SFI.

Yet, its primary task was to identify the level of problems faced by common students studying in the university while undertaking higher post graduate education and research. Palpably, many realized that there were quite a few students dropping out, quite a few having been forced to take up jobs even while having to continue with research etc, all owing to financial pressure. What was needed was a clear scientific survey which could determine how many such people were there in the campus and what were their aspirations with regard to necessary support that they needed to pursue unhindered academic study and research in the campus.

What followed was a dedicated questionnaire campaign by the SFI-led JNUSU which ascertained clearly the necessities of a large chunk of students who were facing financial troubles in the campus. Subsequently efforts were made to pursue the administration to substantially increase the width as well as the scope of the existing financial scholarships that they are providing to students.

All was hunky-dory till now, upto April 2006. What came as a bombshell onto the campus was the announcement by the Government to implement 27% reservation for OBCs in higher education (as mandated constitutionally in the aftermath of the Mandal Commission recommendations' implementation in the early 1990s). The entire focus of the campus changed from issues such as financial assistance, anti-imperialism and solidarity with peasant/worker movements across the country toward this controversial announcement by the Government.

On the face of it, what the Govt had announced wasn't anything new. Ever since the Mandal Commission recommendations were accepted for jobs, it was inevitable that such a ruling was to be implemented in the sphere of education too. The Govt also willed itself to not disturb the existing number of seats available in the open category and promised only to increase the seats substantially (54%) to incorporate the reserved sections.

What followed was a major resentment among a section of students representing primarily upper casteist elements which protested this move; with ample media coverage. The spill over of this motley group of protests led by doctors primarily was the formation of number of groups within an overarching umbrella organization called "Youth for Equality". In JNU, too, YFE, mainly consisted of sections from Science Schools, took up the issue of protest and went ahead with several campaigns (ostensibly inspired by the movie Rang De Basanti), which ultimately culminated in a month long fast with vague demands. The Fast acted as a trigger to mobilize large chunks of apolitical sections of the campus, into one amorphous unit of anti-reservationists.

AISA, on its part, went on a counter fast (against the YFE's rendering the idea of fasts as fatuous) and tried to mobilize opinion among pro-reservationists in the campus. The SFI on its part, thankfully didn't take up the route of a fast to generate opinion on the necessity of reservation. It had already released the first response supporting the move for 27% reservation, while necessitating the caveat of a Creamy Layer and appropriate increase of facilities to accommodate the subsequent increase of seats to 54%.

The problem however was that by June 2006, the reservation plank had so much occupied the arena of political contestation, that all other important issues, particularly the financial assistance agitation in the offing were not on the radar of the students at large. Despite this predicament, the SFI-led JNUSU went ahead with the agitation starting from August and into September and valiantly achieved the demands it had strove to achieve. Clearly, if not for the reservation issue being such a campus-mood-clincher, the SFI-led JNUSU's achievement would have earned it enough brownie points to do better than their 2005 performance.

However, come election time, the entry of the so called apolitical YFE into the fray and further noise pitched in by organizations solely focussed on reservation such as the Bahujan Students Front, made the election almost a referendum for reservations.

In this heightened political environment featuring parties of all hues and shades and the presence of organizations solely focusing on reservation (one anti and another pro), predicting the result of the elections became a tough affair. The fact that nearly all political parties were for reservation, clearly established that this election was going to be a personality affair. In essence, for any person, whichever personality belonging to that political outfit corresponding to his/her position on reservation, based on his personality traits and popularity, turned out to be the criteria for election rather than issue based, performance based support that shaded voter opinion and behaviour in the past.

Dhananjay, the SFI candidate for President, owing to his popularity, incumbency and voter identifiability was therefore touted as a sure winner and he did become the winner, after all. The story however was the near consolidation of votes from Science Schools by the YFE candidates. Clearly, the existing composition of Science Schools tilted toward greater upper caste representation in contrast to the far more egalitarian (gender wise, caste wise, region wise) distribution of students in say, the School of Social Sciences was a factor in determining the support to the YFE. Hence the spectacular performance of the YFE in the Science Schools, where they were able to reap 6 councillor posts and managed leads of more than 230 votes against their nearest rivals in the voting for the Central Panel votes.

As regards, the victory of the AISA in 2 Central Panel posts, the reasons were very clear. The Gen Sec candidate for AISA was a person from the School of Social Sciences (and an erstwhile Hindi student from the School of Languages(SL)) who was known pretty well across the campus for his activism (a fame/notoreity that was nurtured with his role in the Prime Minister's visit to the campus in Nov 2005). The AISF candidate pitched against him was someone who was contesting this election after a year of non-activity in Student Union affairs and someone who belonged to the smaller School of International Studies. The factor of voter knowledge and identification therefore worked in the favor of the AISA candidate in this post.

Similar was the case with the Post of Vice President. Tyler Williams, the AISA candidate, an American, had the highest polled votes in the SL Councillor elections in 2005. His name being touted, because of his identity and nationality, in the media was an additional factor. Pitted against him was Murtaza, someone who was contesting elections for SFI after a gap of 2 years of relative inactivity in student politics in the campus. Added to this disadvantage was a malicious campaign on his personal life, which affected his prospects seriously. Again, a case of voter knowledge and identification played a role in the defeat of the SFI-AISF candidate.

In the post of Jt Secretary, Jyotsna, a two time councillor and sitting Convenor from School of Social Sciences, comfortably won against both the AISA and YFE candidates owing to the same factor again.

In essence, from my understanding, this election reaffirmed the Leftist, progressive credentials of the campus. The victory of two candidates from the Ultra-Left in the Central Panel, despite the good work by the SFI in achieving its primary targets for the year, were primarily because of the impact of the Reservations issue in the campus plus the subordination of all other issue based considerations to merely the factors of voter knowledge of the candidate and the voter's opinion on the reservations saga predominantly.