Learning from the left, leaning to the right: The past and present of India’s student leaders who switched their alliances

The colour of the flag that a lot of the young leaders carry today wasn’t the same a few years ago. We examine this trend and dive into the how and why student politics cross party lines 
Pic: EdexLive
Pic: EdexLive

He is often hailed as the wonder kid of Kerala politics. An average non-Malayalam speaker would wonder why, but if you rearrange two syllables of AP Abdullakutty's name, what you would get is Allbudakutty, which (by now you would have figured out) translates to wonder kid in Malayalam. The nickname is a good few decades old. He rolls back time as he tells us the story behind it.

"I was a first-year pre-degree student at the Sree Narayana College, Kannur," he recalls. A prominent Students' Federation of India (SFI) activist and a confident speaker, he contested for the position of a Students' Union councillor that year. The college, he recalls, had always leaned towards the Congress and its students' wing, Kerala Students' Union (KSU) — the arch-rival of the Communist Party of India Marxist (CPM) affiliated SFI. "To everyone's surprise, I won the election. No one imagined that an SFI activist would win the election in a KSU bastion like my college. Delighted by the result, Anjana, a fellow SFI activist started calling me Allbudakutty," he laughs, "That name stuck."

An old photograph of Abdullakutty (Pic: Facebook)

We wondered if there was any hint of discomfort or hesitation as he reminisced his days as a left-leaning student activist. There was none. These days, Abdullakutty no longer swears by the leftist ideology that he once lived and breathed. These days, he is a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and was recently even elected as its National Vice President.

As far as switchovers from student politics to active politics go, that's as polar as it gets.

But this isn't as empty a club as one would imagine. Especially not in India.

Left Right, Left Right?

Abdullakutty was gearing up for the by-election in the Malappuram parliamentary constituency when we spoke to him. The election was held on April 6, along with the Kerala assembly polls, after its former MP P K Kunhalikkutty had resigned from his post earlier in 2021. Abdullakutty's major rivals were Indian Union Muslim League's M P Abdussamad Samadani and CPM's V P Sanu. Coincidentally both Sanu and Abdullakutty began their journey in politics through the SFI, though decades apart, and have held the position of the SFI's Kerala State President at one point in time.

One may wonder what prompted a 'firebrand comrade', who shouted slogans about Independence, Democracy and Socialism in college campuses across northern Kerala in the 1980s and 1990s, to switch alliances, not once, but twice. Abdullakutty joined the Indian National Congress in 2009 after he was expelled from the CPM and then joined the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2019 after the Congress expelled him. The grapevine has it that praising Narendra Modi and his schemes publicly were the reason behind both expulsions.

Born and raised in Kannur, Abdullakutty says that from the time he was young, he always wanted to be in a profession where he was around people and worked for their social welfare. In that sense, politics was possibly serendipitous for him. His first election, however, happened without the backing of any political party. "I was in Class X and the school had conducted a poll to elect the school leader. The contestants were Dineshan, an SFI activist, Basheer, a KSU activist and I, without any political backing. All of us ended up getting the same number of votes. The school then chose Dineshan as the leader, after picking lots. Nevertheless, all three of us remained good friends,” he says with a laugh.

The next year, he joined SN College to pursue his pre-degree studies, and promptly became a member of the SFI. After winning the student councillor election, he went on to become the General Secretary of the Calicut University Students’ Union in the late 1980s. (SN College, which is now under the Kannur University, was governed by Calicut University at that time). Abdullakutty was also elected the SFI Kerala State President in 1998. The next year, he fought the parliamentary elections from Kannur on a CPM ticket. “I won the elections in 1999 and in 2004 from the same constituency. In 1999, I defeated the incumbent MP Mullappally Ramachandran,” he recalls.

It was smooth sailing until 2008, when Abdullakutty publicly praised Modi, who was then the Gujarat Chief Minister, at an event in the UAE. This led to widespread controversy and following this, he was expelled from the CPM. A politician bereft of a party, he then joined the INC. A decade later, history repeated itself in the strangest way possible — he praised the Swacch Bharat Abhiyan scheme on social media. He was expelled from the Congress and joined Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.

Life on the other side

However, this isn’t the case with Sandeep Singh, former All India Students’ Association (CPIM (L)’s student wing) member and the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union President in 2007-08. So when in 2019, The Print and India Today reported how a young man, who wrote Rahul Gandhi’s and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s speeches for the parliamentary election campaign, a lot of the JNU alumni were awestruck. It was Sandeep, who was once said to have shown a black flag to Dr Manmohan Singh, the then Prime Minister when he visited the university, in 2004. His counterparts also say that he had sloganeered against Rahul Gandhi when he once visited the university.

Dr Manmohan Singh during his JNU visit (Pic: Wikimedia Commons)

So what changed? “I do not prefer to talk about my past,” said Sandeep when we reached out to him. “Or rather, I do not want to talk about myself,” he added, politely. However, Amit Singh, a professor of Political Science at the University of Delhi spoke quite a bit about his and Sandeep’s time when at JNU. Amit was then an activist associated with the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the students’ wing of the right-leaning Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). A PhD scholar at that time, he was Sandeep’s rival candidate at the JNUSU polls that year.

Once upon a time in JNU

The picture of JNU that Amit paints for us is almost impossible for one to imagine today. He joined the university in 1999 as a master’s student and left in 2009, upon completing his PhD. He talks of evenings where the left and right-leaning students sat down together to have cups of chai and samosas. They discussed issues, debated and shared jokes among themselves. At times, they aligned with each other to solve issues concerning students. Sandeep, who is from a batch just after Amit, was the last JNUSU President before the latter left the campus. (After 2007, the JNUSU elections did not happen for five years, after the Delhi High Court banned it following the Lyngdoh committee recommendations).

But anyway, back to that incident with Manmohan Singh.

It was in 2005 that Dr Manmohan Singh visited the university to deliver the Nehru Memorial Lecture. Amit tells us that Barid Baran Bhattacharya, the then Vice-Chancellor had convened a meeting with the representatives of all the major student political organisations, of which he was also a part. Sandeep, he said attended the meeting, representing AISA. “Bhattacharya Ji told us, ‘Yeh Pradhan Mantri hai aur aap ke ideological difference inke saath ho sakti hai’ (He is the Prime Minister and you may have ideological differences with him),” he says. A few months prior to his visit, Singh had met the then US President George W Bush Jr to discuss the Indo-US Nuclear deal, which was a major political talking point. The left parties had ended their alliance with the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance after the deal was signed. “The VC requested us to not conduct a dharna or protest on that day and to let the event happen peacefully. He reminded us that the PM was there on our invitation,” he says.

Amit says that while everyone nodded their heads and agreed with what the VC said, on the day of the event the left-leaning activists did not let Dr Singh speak for at least fifteen minutes. “As soon as he came to the venue, they took out black shirts and black duppattas and swung them in the air like flags,” he recalls.

Then came the incident involving the Congress scion. “He (Rahul) was literally heckled. So, a few years ago when I saw Sandeep next to RaGa on TV, I was shocked. I took a screenshot and shared it with a few friends,” he says. “Maina bola, dekho comrade ko, jo Rahul Gandhi ka jhola utha ke chal rahe hai (I said, look at our comrade, who is carrying Rahul Gandhi’s tote),” Amit tells us.

Sandeep is, however, not the only former JNUSU president to switch alliances. In 1999, the year when Amit was a JNU freshman, SFI’s Syeed Naseer Hussain won the polls and became the president. The JNUSU elections are preceded by a debate, similar to the US Presidential debate, between the presidential candidates. “At that time, someone asked Hussain about the rumours of him switching parties after graduating from the university. Dismissing all of it, he said that even his corpse will be wrapped one day in a red flag,” he says. Today, Hussain is a Rajya Sabha MP from Karnataka and is a popular Congress leader. He reportedly joined the party shortly after graduating.

This isn't necessarily an isolated case as far as JNU's student unionists are concerned. Dr Batti Lal Barwa who was elected twice as the JNUSU President, from 1996-1997 and from 1997-1998 also switched sides. A former SFI member, he is currently the Secretary of the Rajasthan Pradesh Congress Committee. Mohit Pandey, a former member of AISA and the JNUSU President from 2016-17 is now a member of the Uttar Pradesh Congress.

Amit openly advocates for the ABVP and proudly says that most of the members continued to stay within the organisation. “Only a few of the former activists joined mainstream politics. The others still remained with the ideology. No member of the ABVP ever looked at politics as a career,” he says, emphasising that ABVP members never switch parties.

Is that statement accurate? Not quite.

A few years ago, two JNU students Pradeep Narwal and Jatin Goraya quit the ABVP, alleging that the sedition charge filed against Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and a few others was only an attempt to diverting the media’s attention from the marginalisation of the oppressed and unemployment. The sedition charge was filed against Kanhaiya and Khalid, after an event in the university in February 2016, where pro-Pakistan slogans were allegedly raised. In 2019, both of them had alleged that these slogans were shouted by RSS activists themselves.

While Jatin is not part of any political organisation yet, Pradeep is now the National Secretary of the AIl India Congress Committee. We spoke to Pradeep two years ago, when his Congress membership wasn’t official yet. At that time, he said, “We resigned from the ABVP because we were against the whole media trial. We wanted the court to decide who was wrong and give the verdict.” He added, “Even when I was a member of the ABVP, I was against media trials. This isn't anything new.” While Jatin and Pradeep had made their reasons behind leaving their student political organisations clear, a lot of others hadn’t.

Academics who have studied this political science phenomenon for years are of the belief that this is simply a place of misplaced ideology. When we asked Dr Iman Kalyan Lahiri, a professor of Political Science at Jadavpur University, West Bengal, he says that it could be because they do not strongly believe in the institutions that the activists were originally associated with.

Peace of mind over politics

Former University of Hyderabad PhD scholar Rohith Vemula, whose suicide sent shockwaves across the nation for months, has been the face of the Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA) since. However, not many would know that prior to joning ASA, Rohith was a member of the SFI. It is believed that he quit the organisation because of allegations of casteism. At the time of his death by suicide, a few members of the SFI had also spoken to various media houses, confirming this.

Soon after Rohith's passing, Raju Kumar Sahu, the then UoH Students’ Union General Secretary and an SFI member quit the organisation. Raju had also said that SFI, along with the Congress and ASA were taking the protest following Rohith’s suicide in the wrong direction. Five years later, Raju has graduated from the university with an MCA degree and has a quiet life, away from mainstream politics. He is not a member of any political party, but he says that he connects with the underprivileged and works for them whenever he gets an opportunity. “I do not want to do it under any political party’s label,” he says calmly.

Entering mainstream politics was never a part of his agenda, he says. “I come from a poor family in Jharkhand and I had struggled a lot during my graduation days. When I came to UoH, I fell in love with the ambiance it offered. I took part in all the activities possible and people were so good to me,” he says. “I joined the SFI because the people there spoke about the poor and I connected with it,” he says. Despite quitting the SFI, Raju remained as the Students’ Union General Secretary. This, he says, wasn’t quite easy. “There were also attempts to make me join other parties, but it wasn’t the time to think about it,” he says.

The fluidity of ideologies

Let us come back again to Abdullakutty. Post-2014, we have seen a lot of Indian politicians from across party lines join the BJP, owing to the ‘Modi wave'. But did Abdullakutty forsee it five years back? “As an MP, I got to travel all across the country, where I saw the kind of development that had happened in Gujarat. I was mindblown,” he says. At the same time, the Human Development Index (HDI) (that considers health, education and per capita income) of Kerala is 0.779, while Gujarat has an HDI score of 0.672. Kerala also has the highest HDI score in the country. Nevertheless, Abdullakutty says, “The politicians in Kerala are ‘stuck in a well’. They believe in an ideology that was unsuccessful in Russia and Eastern Europe and did no good to people. The Congress and the Communist parties degraded the growth of the state and opposed computers and private colleges.”

But is ideology fluid for politicians and does it change as they grow older? Abdullakutty believes that the role of each political party regardless of the profile and ideology is to work for people’s welfare. “When the Congress eroded, it is time for another political party to work for the country’s progress and make us the next superpower,” he says.

Just before we cut the call, he says that he regrets the time he had spent being an SFI activist, And all the things he did as part of student politics. “We never studied. We only struggled. I missed out on attending classes regularly and interacting with my classmates. I haven’t been on a single picnic with my classmates,” he says.

Hindsight can be a pain sometimes. Especially if you don't like what you're seeing in the rearview mirror.

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