JNU on a caffeine high

Jawaharlal Nehru University's recent "show Nestle the door" agitation was nothing but shoddy, ambivalent rabblerousing, the dumbing down of  politics in India's most politically-savvy universityTrina Joshi Delhi"Gala humara, Gana unka Pet hamara, Khana unka Sadak humari, Carein unki Sansad mein sarkarein unki"Posters like the above in New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) may give the impression of widespread Left-leaning sympathies on the campus. But it couldn't be less right.Recently, the All-India Students' Association (AISA) successfully agitated for the removal of a Nestle outlet from the campus, on the grounds of the "corporate takeover of dhaba space". Apart from grabbing some media attention, however, the agitation proved very little beyond the fact that while JNU's denizens are easy to galvanise out of the stupor of study, they have become difficult to mobilise — whatever else the AISA might trumpet.The students who did take part in the agitation, braving inclement weather at four in the morning, supported the memorandum by 544 votes in the Union General Body Meeting (UGBM). However, arriving at a decision to eject the Nestle outlet was hardly a cakewalk.The Students' Federation of India (SFI), the main opposition to the AISA, was busy proposing a "comprehensive policy" for all multinational corporations (MNCs) in JNU. "Their [AISA] whole point vis-à-vis Nestle is to score a political point over us," says Shubhoneel Chaudhry, SFI president. According to him, the alliance between the AISA, the National Students Union of India (NSUI) and the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) is not based on principled opposition to MNCs but on "an unprincipled opposition" to the SFI.For AISA, the campaign against Nescafe, in particular, represents its struggle against corporatisation, in general. "We have not called for the boycott of MNC products," says AISA president Mona Das. "But, we will not allow the corporate takeover of our university space." Since, she says, an Indian alternative is available for Nescafe, she has chosen to replace the videsi outlet with a desi dhaba. But since other multinationals, such as Nokia, do not have Indian replacements, her agenda neatly circumvents them.The party's rationale is that the presence of exclusive MNC outlets raises the question of affordability, which is, among generically-impoverished students, a matter of some reckoning. The AISA says that poorer than usual students — and JNU is teeming with them, because of the university's policy to provide free tuition to the economically-disadvantaged — may develop an inferiority complex in the face of multinational glitz."It accentuates the difference between the haves and the have-nots," says Muqbil Ahmar, general secretary of the JNU Students' Union (SU). The problem with such focussed animus is that it is shrewdly selective: it will be a challenge for the SU to evict, say, Microsoft, the mother of all MNCs.The entire "scrap Nescafe" issue has boiled down to curbing the choices of many on the campus. Nestea is sold at Rs 5 and muffins for Rs 10, a fraction of the price at other Nescafe outlets. Also, since Nestle is paying rent to the university, and not encroaching, many students believe that the drive to uproot it is a sham."I would not want to get involved in useless ideological battles," says Shireen Ali, an MA economics student. (This disdain for one of JNU's defining characteristics is common: the university, once a grooming atelier for national-level Left leaders such as Sitaram Yechury, today prepares MBA aspirants.)"People have become more issue-centric than ideology-centric," says Mridusmita Borah, an M Phil student. Where students are nonchalant about ideology, keeping political agendas alive is left to student leaders who take up the cudgels on issues that don't always have explicit alumni mandate."There is nothing in this [Nescafe] issue which really warrants our attention," says Bhavna Agarwal, an MA economics student. She would rather have Mona Das focus on issues such as in-campus shuttle services and hostel locations, which affect students directly and with more immediacy.While there is something to be said about taking to the streets when the rest of the city is comfortably in bed, students grouse about the UGBM voting methodology: voting over the "scrap Nestle" issue was held at 4 am, when most students decided against getting out of bed. Many day scholars and students in distant hostels feel that they were left out of a "democratic" exercise.There's griping all round: students feel the AISA has made mountain out of a molehill; and the SU is parrying a comprehensive policy on the grounds that not everything can be replaced by Indian brands. Also, could desi kafi replacements be forced to adhere to the Nescafe's dhaba's quality and taste? Das says that the students have elected to compromise on this: her popular mandate comprises 544 students who voted; the problem is that 3,000 didn't.