– By Arundhati Srinath (UG21)
During the first-ever Accountability Debate, former member of the 4th House of Representatives, Akshay Ramkumar, claimed that the primary reason he had resigned from the House was how apathetic the student body was to issues that concerned them and to the work that the Student Government did. And if you were to believe him, he wasn’t the only one. That year saw a flurry of resignations like never before, infamous scandals by long-prevailing political parties, internal breakdown in others, and, perhaps its most important legacy of all, the minting of the term “Ashokan apathy.”
The concept itself wasn’t a new one. Ashokan politics has long been taken superficially, at best, and disdainfully, at worst, by the student body and parties alike. A quick glance at the manifestos of yore tells us all we need to know about Ashoka’s student politics barely 3 years ago: suggestions such as “worker’s day out” and “regular inquiries into the working conditions of labourers” were the only times that workers were ever mentioned, amidst other solutions to pressing issues like environmental sustainability such as “celebrating Earth Hour every month” and “encouraging class/club sessions in the open.” These are direct quotes from the 2017 and 2016 manifestos of Prakrit and Dhamma. The 2021 manifestos of the same parties on those very issues reflect significant differences.
With politics such as this, no wonder nearly every year saw a new crop of a special category of parties, termed as “joke parties” after their often ridiculous names nestled in controversial acronyms and satirical politics, that still won a significant number of votes during elections. A casual perusal of the elections of the past 3 years, though, would reveal that “joke parties” as a phenomenon, as well as the problematic, tone-deaf politics of the past, have almost disappeared from student politics, and the timing isn’t a coincidence. The 5th House saw the first time that ministers were being appointed from outside the House, due to a landmark decision by the 4th House earlier to separate the legislature (the House of Representatives) from the executive (the Cabinet). When earlier one had to be a House member to hold a ministerial position in the Cabinet, this wasn’t the case anymore.
The reason this was done was, initially, to eliminate the conflict of interest that arose with the same House members creating, and then scrutinizing and passing the SG budget that runs into lakhs of rupees. The happy consequence of being able to choose the right person for the job, instead of those that just happen to be the most popular, was an auxiliary one that motivated the House to vote in favour of the separation. I guess the 4th House hoped that it would get students without party affiliation more interested in student politics, but I don’t think they realised what a more informed and involved student body meant for parties and the campaigns they run.
With more non-House members involved in the Student Government, the carefully hidden and often not talked about cleavages in student politics begin to show: questions about ministerial promises on party manifestos, the overlap of House and Ministry work and the issues that arise due to it, uninformed campaign promises, and so much more. The outgoing Environment Minister, Anjali Dalmia, notes the very same in their public email, requesting all parties to “please reach out to current ministers and understand the work they have undertaken and see how you can build on it rather than starting fresh” and “share a realistic timeline of how and when they plan to actually carry out [manifesto promises].” Pratiti, the outgoing Minister of Academic Affairs, also requests the student body and parties on their public Facebook post on the Ashoka Undergraduates group to recognise work done by independent, non-partisan Ministers and not “ask… [party] representative[s] who [have] nothing to do with MAA’s work questions about the MAA.” This last election season was truly a rollercoaster like no other for the simple reason that, for the first time, the student body participated in the elections more actively than ever before.
Before the 5th House of Representatives, Presidents (who always belong to parties) could pick their Cabinet and not have them go through the House confirmation procedure like what happens today. In light of this, presidential candidates from different parties would often trade Cabinet positions with other House members in exchange for their vote, forming complicated coalitions and partnerships that the student body couldn’t care less about. And who could blame them? It’s not like internal House politics affected them in any way.
The 5th House, too, was no stranger to partisan politics that excluded independents and continued to favor House members from parties. Even with the reform, since House members were excluded from having a confirmation vote to secure their Cabinet positions, parties would often try to place their picks from within the House in the Cabinet and vote out independents as Ministers during the confirmation. Playing partisan politics when the Student Government was a closely guarded cloister was one thing, but the stakes are higher now. The same partisan politics is now seen as what it truly is: a party trying to hold onto power with a less qualified candidate using sheer numbers. It’s no longer party versus party, but party versus student body. The questions and concerns that arise from this type of politics are therefore greatly amplified in a system where any student is eligible to be a minister, and long-standing problems with the way Cabinet confirmation hearings are voted come to light.
The problem with the term “Ashokan apathy” is the same as with “Ashokan ethos” — it’s vague, malleable and seems to have multiple answers on how to “fix it” (if it’s a problem at all) depending on who you ask. While Prakrit believes the answer to ‘Ashokan apathy’ lies in unionisation, Tarz and Dhamma firmly believe that more transparency and proactive communication by the House will bring the students to finally care. Caught between one incredibly radical solution and another almost comical in its mundanity, the ‘apathetic’ student body is left somewhere in the middle, asking themselves what it would really take for them to show up and question their representatives on a regular day with no pressing issues as the topic of discussion. The answer: possibly nothing. Isn’t that why they elected their representatives?
I’m not saying that the general feeling behind “Ashokan apathy” doesn’t exist; indeed, town halls on controversial issues like cohort leader selection, or safety in the Facebook group could benefit from larger numbers from the student body. It’s also concerning that students don’t seem to actually refer to SG reports, budget documents, or attend monthly questions hours even if they find themselves having a problem with anything (which they inevitably seem to have only during election season when party politics are at its worst).
All I’m saying is that it’s a start. Since so much has changed since the 4th House, we cannot keep using the term “Ashokan apathy” the same way. Our politics has changed, our system of forming the Cabinet changed, and even our electoral system has changed. Joke parties were the first ones to go because our political ecosystem grew beyond “vending machine” politics. The closest we got to a joke party in recent years was the roaring success of L.I.B.E.R.AND.U, formed by a group of Comic Relief members who claimed they wanted to expose how petty party politics are and students’ frustration with them and promised to resign immediately if they are elected into the House — which, after 3 out of 5 of their candidates getting in and making their point, they actually followed through, unlike previous joke parties that stuck on and ended up further trivialising the institution with their insincerity.
At the end of the day, when students need to speak up, they do, because they’re allowed to hold positions of power inside the Student Government. Ever since the power of the SG did not remain limited to the House, parties could not continue to claim ignorance about important issues with the student body being none the wiser. Elections are difficult now, debates tougher, and outrage louder because we need not take the parties’ word for it. We have an independent, non-partisan group of people to call them out and inform the student body when they make mistakes. This election cycle has shown us that we cannot underestimate the power of knowledge and informed questioning in the way student politics is run. In our efforts towards making the Ashokan student body less ‘apathetic’, the involvement of more non-partisan students and groups in the SG’s work will make all the difference.
The applications to the Cabinet of the 7th SG (2021-22) are open here till 23rd February, EOD. Of the nine Cabinet Ministers in the 6th SG, seven were non-cis-men, three of whom were without party affiliation.
Arundhati Srinath is a UG21 Political Science Major, English Minor who has dabbled in multiple Cabinet Ministries. She was Head of the Residence Life Services department in the Campus Life Ministry, Head of Communications in the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs, and a member of the Policy Research team in the Ministry of Academic Affairs. She is also a former member of Prakrit.