The Forgotten Civic Right: Why and How to Contest Elections

In discussions about civic rights, the right to vote is emphasised, and rightly so. But this right, often framed as a duty — as responsible citizens, we ought to vote — receives outsized attention. What we forget is that this right is inseparable from its counterpart – the right to contest. If you are entitled to vote, you should be, at least theoretically, also eligible to contest. 

Over the last three years at Ashoka, the AUEC has shown an unflinching commitment to improving voter turnout. Under Shashank Mattoo, Ashoka witnessed the debut of online voting, and under Amola Mehta, the voting period was extended over two days. The results speak for themselves — the 6th House was elected with a five-year-high turnout of more than 80%.

At the same time, there is a parallel trend where novelty in the pool of political parties has decreased. The last time first-years formed a new party was in 2017, when a few students who were removed from Dhamma due to alleged irregularities in their inductions decided to start Moksh. And Moksh too is exiting the electoral field. Since then, Ashoka has welcomed two parties, LIBERANDU and Tarz, both founded by students in their third and possibly last year. 

The AUEC has put out a video explaining the official procedure to file your nomination. To nominate yourself as a candidate, you need to fill this form by 24th January. If you are running with a party, you must first register your party here. Many students, who joined the SG without any party affiliation, have publicly offered to guide and assist others. Aspiring independent candidates are also encouraged to reach out to them. 

For this article, the Edict interviewed some students who had started or helped set up political parties at Ashoka. Here is a non-exhaustive guide on why and how to contest elections for the House of Representatives:

I don’t understand the voting system. What is Swiss PR?

In November 2019, there was a referendum to change the voting system (learn more here). The system that was chosen by the voters is called “Modified Swiss Proportional Representation” or Swiss PR. It is adapted from (you guessed it!) the voting system of Switzerland, with unique modifications made for the Ashokan context. 

The idea behind Swiss PR is to strike a balance between individuality and ideology. The way that the 15 House seats are allotted is determined by what is called the electoral quotient or EQ. Simply put, the EQ is the number of votes that are needed to win one seat. The AUEC has released a detailed explainer on the calculation of EQ and apportionment of seats.

What is important to note is: Swiss PR does not follow the “one person one vote” principle. Instead, it gives every voter up to 15 votes, one for every seat in the House. Each of these 15 votes can be cast for any individual candidate, regardless of party affiliation. These are called “individual votes.” If you do not cast all 15 votes towards individual candidates, you can choose to cast your remaining votes towards a single party. These are called “list votes.” List votes are usually, though not always, cast based on one’s ideological leaning. A voter can also choose to cast some of their 15 votes and discard the rest, or cast all 15 towards None of the Above (NOTA).

If you are an aspiring candidate, this means two things. First, you are not competing for voters, but only for one of their 15 votes. Voting in this system is not a zero-sum game and students can vote for candidates from multiple parties at once. And last year, the average voter only used 10 out of 15 votes, so there is even more room to fight for those 5 discarded votes in every ballot. 

Second, the option of list voting means you need not be popular to run. If your party brings a promising issue or ideology to the table, students may vote for some other individual candidates and give the rest of their votes to your party as list votes. You can even run with fewer candidates on your list, pull list votes on a popular platform, and manage to win a decent number of seats. Last year, despite only fielding 5 candidates, LIBERANDU sent 3 members to the House on the back of its list votes.

I have heard that Swiss PR is unfair to independents. Is that true?

The jury is still out, but the playing field is certainly not perfectly level. For one, an independent candidate cannot get more than one vote for the 15 that any voter has, while a party can get up to as many votes as there are individuals on its candidate list. Party candidates also benefit from aggregation of votes. Take, for example, an election where the EQ is 100. Now imagine party X has three candidates, who receive 20, 30, and 40 individual votes each, and the part itself also gets 30 list votes. Therefore, party X won a total of 120 votes and got one seat. On the other hand, an independent candidate with 90 votes will still not get into the House.

Fortunately for us, we follow a modified version of Swiss PR, in which the EQ for independents is calculated differently from that for parties. This dual-EQ system exists to ensure that independents, who by definition cannot receive list votes, do not have to compete with them. Say, in an election, a total of 3000 votes were cast. The EQ for parties (calculated as total votes divided by seats) will be 3000÷15, which comes to 200 votes. Now, if 900 of these votes are list votes, the EQ for independents is 2100÷15=140. But, if 1200 of them are list votes, the EQ for independents becomes 1800÷15=120. The greater the proportion of list votes, the lower the EQ for independents. (Read more here.)

Is student politics at Ashoka too competitive already?

Most former student politicians we interviewed replied to this question with an emphatic no. Ashokan politics is far too nascent to devolve into a system that is dominated by just a couple of parties. Our elections are meant to be multi-party, and the Swiss PR system keeps that spirit alive by allowing students to vote for candidates across party lines.

In fact, no House before the current one had a party that had a clear majority of eight seats. And from the 2nd House to the 5th one, the kingmaker position was always enjoyed by a new party or by an independent candidate. Saptarshi Basak reminisced how the party he founded, Samiti, only won 3 seats in the 3rd House but as a result, ended up deciding which party gets the presidency. The same is true of Moksh, which had 2 seats in the 4th House, and of independent member Esther Larisa David, who was the deciding vote in the 5th one.

Arush Pande, President of the 4th House and the first one from Prakrit, said this about first-year parties: “Ashokans tend to notice if someone is talking from experience or naivete.” The task for those who are new to the arena is to “work hard, smartly and meticulously.” Swati Singh, who spearheaded the social media strategy of LIBERANDU, noted how new parties invite attention, especially from voters who are curious and seeking alternatives. Saptarshi suggested that a party can capitalise on this “to shift the terms of the debate.” In some measure, that is what Tarz is doing for the conversation on student-administration relations.

How to form an ideology that stands out?

Most would agree that the majority of students at Ashoka lean to the left. But Arush contends that even then, we are far from homogenous. Parties can range from being centre-left to neo-liberal to far-left. And Arnav reminds that an upcoming conservative party could capture the right-leaning voters that do exist. Even apart from issues of external politics, there are many points of ideological divergence that already exist.

Edwin Joseph of Prakrit, who was the Leader of Opposition in the 3rd House, identified the SG budget as an example. Parties can put forward differing visions of their spending priorities. And Sanat mentioned that there is a vacuum in the representation of issues based on identities like caste and class. Arush highlights that ideology is also reflected in what issues a party’s members raise in the SG once they are elected.

Saptarshi said that on a college campus, ideology came down to approaches to the administration — whether you are “confrontational” or “accommodative.” He also said that on issues of social welfare, a party can focus on independent initiatives, such as donation drives, or on systemic changes, such as eliminating contractual hiring. Lastly, for satirical parties, Akshat Praneet, one of the founding members of LIBERANDU, said that ideology was “all about challenging and questioning” the status quo, using humour and without jargon.

Does it help to be a part of a party?

If you choose to run with a party, you will contest as part of an organisation, which comes with its own pros and cons. Apart from the advantages of the electoral system that we touched upon earlier, it can connect you with like-minded people who bring with them their diverse lived experiences and understanding of various issues. According to Arnav Mohan Gupta, co-founder of Moksh, it also augurs well for “efficiency and task-mindedness.”

For Arush, his party was a constant source of feedback on fresh ideas, accountability while in office, and support during challenging times. And Sanat Sogani, President of the 2nd House and the first one from Dhamma, noted how his party provided a space for self-expression without judgement. Finally, Saptarshi remembered how “planning campaigns, intra-party debates and dissent, and creating a manifesto” were fun activities where you can also make friends.

The cons, for them, were few but noteworthy: that it is time-consuming to be in a party, that you may have to commit to it beyond just the election period, and that one can leave with a bad taste in their mouth if the work environment or internal structure is not a good fit for them. (The Edict reached out to some independent candidates for interviews, but could not conduct any.)

How to internally structure a party?

The debate on party structure is usually centred around the question of formalising a vertical hierarchy. Dhamma, Prakrit, and Moksh all began without any formal hierarchy. Arnav, who co-founded Moksh, and Sanat, the first President from Dhamma, have both revised their views since, to say that some level of hierarchisation is necessary. For Sanat, this is mainly to optimise work given the growing size of batches and parties, while Arnav thinks that without it, parties are more likely to become “victims to internal politics.” 

Sanat, however, warns against making it “too pyramidical” as that will damage the party by making it dependent on a handful of students. And Arush, who was the first President from Prakrit, notes that cults of personalities have always existed, and whether or not you have a formal hierarchy, informal ones are inevitable. The important thing is to have “checks and balances” in place, which many parties do by forming some kind of internal mechanism for grievance redressal. Arnav also reminds us that structure matters for inductions, because aspiring members should also be able to envision themselves in it.

How to induct members and field candidates?

While there is no official requirement for the minimum number of members a party must have, how to take in members depends on the party’s ambitions and strategy. Some parties, like Samiti or Moksh in their first year, opt for a catch-all method. Anyone with interest in contesting elections, or in students politics in general, was given a platform. Saptarshi also recalls how Samiti made an attempt to field candidates who could secure votes from specific segments of the student body with demands such as more weekend events or better gym facilities.  

Both Dhamma and Prakrit were early to start inductions, recall Sanat and Arush. Sanat said that Dhamma sought people who were dedicated and could be trusted, and not necessarily those who were the most articulate. Arush said that Prakrit had a protracted, multi-stage process which looked at many things: whether they “roughly align” with the party’s value system, whether they exhibit “a willingness to learn,” and whether they have the “work ethic” and interest to undergo their weeks-long process.

The only official requirement for the candidate list is that there must be at least two people on it. To make this list, most parties follow internal voting, or screening, or some combination of both. In parties with formal hierarchies, the leaders can enjoy extraordinary power over the decision. Once the list is ready, it must be ordered. Earlier, many parties ordered their lists strategically, based on metrics like popularity. From the last two years, Prakrit and Moksh opted to simply order them alphabetically. Prakrit also used the zipper system, which means they alternate between names of candidates on their list based on gender identity.

How to make a manifesto?

The advice for manifestoes was far-ranging. Saptarshi suggested that it should be short and concise, it should appeal to broad swathes of the student body, and it should be widely disseminated during campaigning. Sanat said it should be “broad enough to have space for changes during your term but specific to show what you care about.” Arnav emphasised being realistic with your promises because exorbitant claims that attract attention also bring greater scrutiny. You can also create ministry-wise segments to make your vision specific and long-term. And Arush said it is important to “do your homework.” That means, consulting primary stakeholders and talking to former ministers and House members to gain context.

How to campaign online?

Sanat says it is imperative to proactively reach out to the people you want to represent. Arush also emphasised the need to “speak directly to the concerns” of first and second years, and to understand the voting system well. Swati Singh, who spearheaded the social media strategy of LIBERANDU, advises students to “be open for critique” and to “take issues seriously, not ourselves.” Needless to say, social media is even more crucial in an online election. Saptarshi says that social media strategy requires expertise. You would need an active presence on social media with adept use of memes. Finally, he warns parties not to spam students with emails.

Reporting contributed by Deep Vakil. Interviews conducted by Pratul Chaturvedi and Arya Shukla.

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