In an exclusive statement shared with The Edict on Sunday, the Ashoka University Election Commission has admitted that it will be unable to implement the provision for ballot measures for the upcoming election cycle. As enshrined in the Constitution, members of the student body have the right to float a petition for a ballot measure* during the campaigning period, subject to certain conditions.
*Ballot measures are pieces of proposed legislation that voters approve or reject through a referendum. Usually, as in the Ashokan context, voting on ballot measures is held simultaneously with regular elections. A question can qualify for a ballot measure if a petition floated for the same garners a certain threshold of signatures.
This provision immediately came into effect after the elections for the 6th HoR, following which the AUEC under Amola Mehta was expected to propose necessary additions to the Election Code to allow students to exercise their newly granted right. In October last year, after meeting with the House to discuss its initial recommendations, the AUEC sent a revised version to the House for further consideration. It has been revealed to The Edict that the House failed to revert to the AUEC’s revised recommendations, consequently depriving the student body of the required mechanisms to exercise their constitutional right.
The AUEC’s statement says that “since we are at the heels of the election cycle… we do not believe it [ballot measures] can be successfully implemented at this point.” Responding to these turn of events, Vaibhav Parik, an Election Commissioner in last year’s AUEC, says that there was no delay from their end. “I think we did our part in readying the recommendations, so I don’t see why the onus lies on us. The EC is not where the finger should be pointed at,” he adds.
Priavi Joshi, President of the 6th HoR, apologises for not following up with the AUEC. “From our side, we should have ensured that we met the EC often enough, which we didn’t do. I apologise for that; there is no excuse for it,” she says. According to her, it is very late to set up a mechanism for ballot measures days into the campaigning period. “We’ll ask the new House to take this up as one of their first agendas. It’s better to have a well-thought-out, nuanced process than rushing through it,” she says.
A chaotic history
The provision in question, which can be found in Article 1, Section 1 of the Constitution, had a rocky start from the very beginning. Passed just days before the previous election’s campaigning period, the amendment saw stiff opposition from the AUEC under Amola Mehta for being too close to the election for effective implementation. “The sudden passage of this amendment has completely blindsided us, that too extremely close to the beginning of the campaigning period,” reads the email the AUEC sent to the House shortly after the amendment was passed. The AUEC also sought to remind the House that implementing the newly adopted Swiss-PR system with this provision would confuse voters, thus adversely impact turnout.
When asked whether the AUEC’s concerns were valid, Deep Vakil admits that the House was at fault. “We understood that there had been a lapse on our part by not consulting them; it should have happened much earlier,” he says. Due to this, the House voted to push the w.e.f. date of the amendment to after the elections.
The AUEC’s concerns were “not only logistical in nature but [are] also about the principle and method in which the amendment comes into force.” In other words, the AUEC felt that the threshold of signatures required to convert a petition into a ballot measure had been too low. Initially, the House set the threshold at 10%, i.e. a petition requires the signatures of at least 10% of the student body to be considered a ballot measure. Considering the AUEC’s objections, the House increased the threshold to 15%, still short of the AUEC’s suggestion of 20%. Even though deciding the threshold number is beyond the purview of the AUEC since it is a constitutional matter, Deep Vakil argues that it was important to consult it. “If the House is changing the AUEC’s job description, it might be a worthy idea to talk to them about it. I want to be clear that this consultative step is not a formal requirement, but not consulting has resulted in bad policy making,” he says.
Members of the House, past and present, feel that a high threshold would discourage students from floating a petition. “The proposed threshold was too high; for any individual to mobilise 400 signatures on a matter of student politics is too much,” says Priavi Joshi. Ex-Chief Election Officer (CEO) Amola Mehta says that if 20% of the students cannot rally behind a petition then the question it is posing may not be important. “I think it speaks to the success of making a matter relevant to people. If you cannot make an issue relevant despite your best efforts, it may mean that the student body isn’t concerned with it,” she says.
The back and forth between the House and the AUEC regarding the threshold number, which started during the 5th House’s term, eventually spilled into the succeeding House’s term as well. In October when the House and the AUEC met to discuss the contentions, the conversation also expanded to whether a petition needed to be approved by the House before it could garner signatures. The AUEC felt that the petition needed validity from the SG. Amola Mehta, the CEO at the time, says, “If you don’t have a procedure, any question can be arbitrarily posed, and it can turn up on the ballot.” On the other hand, Priavi Joshi says that to avoid a conflict of interest, “the house can’t decide which petitions hold and which petitions don’t.”
In an attempt to resolve the deadlock, the AUEC made a revised list of recommendations which it sent to the House. It is this list that the House never reverted to the AUEC on, thus creating a constitutional crisis of sorts. Due to unresolved disagreements, the Constitution is set to be violated this election season.