by Clinton Manoti and Jacob Thamarappally As Ashoka University rolls into another year of hotly contested
By Jacob Thamarappally and Pragyna Divakar
The Edict speaks to Shashank Mattoo, the Chief Election Officer of the Ashoka University Election Commission.
How do you think that this election cycle has fared so far?
I think that it’s been quite interesting because a lot of “firsts” have taken place in this election — it’s the first time we’re having online voting, we’re increasing the number of booths we have — of course, I think parties are as dramatic as ever so I feel like that has remained the same. I think that there are also personal firsts in the sense that it’s the first time that the Election Commission will be holding a public hearing for a grievance redressal. So I think that it’s cool in the sense that I like how the election cycle is showing that Ashokan elections are maturing, that there’s a good grievance redressal system now. In the three years that we have had the Election Commission there hasn’t been a single grievance redressal ever put in. Now we having a public hearing, now we’re having clear conversations about what exactly a violation construes, and we’re having great turnout for elections. So, I really think that in terms of how the election cycle has turned out so far, I’m very happy to see that the system as a whole has really been maturing and that people are taking an interest.
What was your motivation for the grievance redressal? Was that a problem that you had faced or something that you did anticipating a need?
I think it’s a mixture of both of what you said — that there are problems and secondly, that it just came from our belief that people should have the right to report cases becauses the fact is that per electoral code norms, the EC itself cannot file cases. So we do really need the public to be involved and if there’s no mechanism for the people to be involved then grievances won’t come up. Often it isn’t just parties that notice violations, it’s the public. I think that by creating a grievance redressal form we were addressing an old problem which is that after the elections last year some people had grievances but couldn’t, in a systematic way, come to us and tell us that this happened. And secondly, because we wanted to get the people involved a little more in the elections and what happens at Ashoka.
Turnout proved to be pretty troublesome last year. How do you expect the turnout to be this year? Why do you think turnout decreased significantly last year?
On your first question, I’m quite optimistic because we have four voting booths — before we used to have just the SH 2 TV room and only three computers. Now we’re having four physical booths so you can vote in SH 1, SH 2, SH 3, and you can vote in the mess. And we also have online voting. So I sincerely hope that the turnout does improve. In terms of what I think went wrong, I think that the fact that we had only one physical voting booth last year significantly decreased turnout. A lot of people thinking that NOTA was just a protest vote and wasn’t anything else — I think that discouraged a lot of people from turning out because I feel like they would have liked to press a NOTA button but might have thought that it wasn’t worth their time. Lastly, there is this systematic perception that student politics in Ashoka does not matter and that party ideologies are not sufficiently different that people should come out and say “Oh, I really care about this issue!”. Everyone has this perception that all parties will do the same job. I feel like all those thing contributed last year to a lower election turnout but we’ve done what we can to boost turnout this year with multiple electoral booths and online voting system.
Do you think last year’s election was a perfect storm that had been brewing for some time or was there something special about last year? There was a huge drop in the number of voters.
Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20. I was in the Election Commission last year as well, not Chief Electoral Officer but an Election Commissioner. Last year, we certainly felt that we did enough. It (voter turnout) was 92%, 97%, 72% and then it dropped to 57%. I feel like, as the student body got bigger, more and more people felt like they weren’t being heard. So when the electoral body was very small and everyone knew everyone, people felt personally invested in getting out to vote. But as the student body got bigger, this became an issue and the electoral system did not adapt to change to that. Our batch has around 400 people and the Ashoka undergraduate student body was around a 1000 people. Not knowing who’s going to be on the ballot contributed, in a significant way, to people not turning up. The system didn’t change to reflect that. In some ways, I do agree that it was like a perfect storm. A number of factors came in that we did not completely anticipate and I think that we’ve changed this year to reflect that better.
What was your motivation behind the requirement of a no objection certificate for contesting candidates this year?
This is a quite rare and unknown part of Ashoka’s history, but there have been house members in the past that have had to resign because of disciplinary violations and I think that it is very interesting that this was a recommendation from the house. We didn’t see any reason to reject it. I’ve heard that a political party on campus did a survey and found that 47% of Ashokans don’t vote because they don’t have sufficient information about the elections and I feel like not knowing whether a candidate has an ongoing case against them or cannot be cleared from a disciplinary perspective is something that should be known. It followed in precedent from what the election commissioner had done in the Indian government which was you had to give evidence for the fact you have no criminal cases against you etc. This was necessary to give voters an assurance of legitimacy.
Some students have argued that sortition, picking representatives from random ballots from the pool of candidates, might be better for a place like Ashoka. What is your view on this?
Well, this goes back to the time of Socrates and Plato. These guys used to think that sortition is the only true form of democracy that can exist. To me that does not hold true because a very important part of democracy is earning people’s trust to do their work. If you go out there and try to convince people that your vision is the right vision there are ills that come with it — party competitiveness, electoral violations. However, I feel like the good is that people can look at a person and say that I trusted this person and I believe in this person’s vision. Serious concerns with sortition — It would not be fair to a lot of students to ask them to take time out time from their academics and simply be told to do a job when they might not even want to do the job when in fact there are people with a vision who want to do this job who people trust. Regardless of all these ideas that sortition is in fact the only true form of democracy, competing for someone’s vote helps both sides. It helps you be accountable in the truest sense of the word. I think it creates true trust in the system and that’s very important in student politics.
Campaigns have spoken about giving a voice to those who are often unheard. What is the AUEC’s position on representation of minorities in the house?
[Chuckling] This is a little out of my jurisdiction so I shall refrain from commenting but what I will say is that our job is to design an electoral system and give candidates a voice to say what they wish to say. We would like to design debates and design systems that ensure inclusivity. For instance, one of the reforms is that we want to do is to do away with proportional representation system and we want people to be elected and you should be allowed to vote across parties. This would allow a lot of independents to come up. As far as we are concerned, we would like to make sure the system and the debates are open and inclusive for people who are minority groups.
What has been one of the hallmarks of your tenure as chief election officer?
Getting online voting was definitely great. If we get voter turnout above 75 or 80%, I would feel a lot better about myself. Getting a high turnout for the debates was also great. I want to get an election code overhaul passed either next semester or the end of this semester. Hopefully if you come back to me on the basis of turnout, I would be able to give you a much clearer picture. I’m happy to see the process of voting at Ashoka maturing.