How To Fix a Student Government That Is Built for Collapse

By Mahika Dhar (UG’23)

On analysing the issues that the 7th House of Representatives undertook, as well as the structure of the Student Government, it seems inevitable that the end would be with a collapse of its legitimacy. To understand the disintegration of the SG, and hopefully scan for future solutions, one has to look no further than the existing policies to see how an intrinsically precarious structure was created and how the sensitive, specific, and mass-backed issues pressured an already flimsy institution into shreds. 

The burdens of an online semester, campus COVID crises, and the hyper-organization and action that the resignations of Professors Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Arvind Subramanian required are unique to the 7th House. However, the overburdening of individual members that these issues resulted in is a persisting factor in the organisation of the Student Government. Given the pressure they face, the workload, and the sheer amount of people that rely on them, it’s no wonder that the mental health of members is strained. It is no secret that the Ashoka Centre for Well Being remains functional in its own capacity for SG members to approach when needed, but that is barely the point. The concern here is that there has to be a better method of organization, one that doesn’t burden individuals and creates some semblance of balance, for the mental health of those who occupy these representative positions and also for the benefit of more productive functioning. To analyse the SG structure, one must begin with dismantling it. There is no better place to start this process than with voting itself. Modified Swiss Proportional Representation, the voting system that we use, is characterised by the idea of voting for individual candidates. Even within party spheres, the voter chooses candidates and ranks them accordingly. This system seems to create a kind of intimate attachment to the elected members, one that fosters easy communication at best and debilitating pressure coupled with passionate personal attacks at the worst. Perhaps there is a better method of compartmentalising and distinguishing between the individuals who constitute the government temporarily and the actual structure of the government itself. Moreover, a more efficient way of creating a certain level of distance between what the candidates represent versus who they personally are will ease the pressure they feel while also lessening the level of obligation hoisted onto them by voters. This change is definitely one of a mindset, but voting should represent this shift too instead of fostering hyper-individuality that creates hyper-pressure as it might be doing now. 

Despite being historic in its formation, one of the recurring issues in the Seventh House of Representatives is representation. This problem is visible from examples of previous Houses and the structure of Student Government itself, The Student Government has always been primarily governed by cis men who, in examples both old and new, create an aggressive and toxic environment. However, what if we could erase, or at least minimise, the growing confusion and disconnection between the HoR and Ministries by creating a more stratified voting system, one in which you vote specific people for specific issues? No one will be able to predict unexpected future crises and allocating a ‘miscellaneous’ representative is foolish for a number of reasons but the recurring nature of so many issues has to be considered deeply. The base idea of having specifically elected people to primarily handle specific issues would make for a less confused SG in the face of recurring crises. Further, having this clear division and accountability might be a source of comfort for voters and representatives alike who will then participate in an election cycle that isn’t muddled by single candidates covering a plethora of issues. To have specific members elected for say, workers rights, will at least minimise the haphazard handling in the face of new issues such as the Covid crisis during which action was needed against abominable sleeping conditions. By limiting certain issues to certain people, we can reduce the collective overburdening and can function in a smoother, more segregated manner. On the other hand, such a voting shift would also result in a more intensive electoral cycle – one that calls for increased voter participation and awareness. This can be troubling for several reasons. Firstly, it overburdens an already intense period of time and secondly, the voter enthusiasm needed for it might be a dream in the face of repeated Ashokan apathy. However, a completely new way of voting and electing SG members must be at least considered. The easiest method of making a clearly stratified approach, while retaining the group nature of unexpected problem solving that will be required, is to simply increase the size of the SG itself, another factor that needs to be desperately considered. Additionally, the obvious solution to carving a freer, safer, and more well-represented space within politics lies in reservations, an idea that becomes increasingly possible with a larger SG size. 

The size of the SG, and the internal struggles within seem to be related to the number of incumbents allowed. Within the constitution of the SG as well, a provision for minimising the number of incumbents, or at the very least, limiting their power, is essential. Acting with unspoken superiority, often at the expense of newly elected younger members, incumbents represent a dangerous mix of entitlement and unhinged power. In the 7th House itself, the presence of 4 incumbents almost certainly have created a dramatic, personally depleting, and overwhelmingly unnecessary toxic power struggle among younger members and those who returned. Ways to avoid an overwhelming number of incumbents could be to amend the constitution to cap the number of incumbents or limit the number of times one can be elected to simply two terms. By making the make-up of the SG tighter, the structure itself can pick up some of the slack that currently falls on already overburdened hands, as we have seen in the repeated citation of strained mental health. 

Considering the fact that each of the representatives’ lives extend beyond this position and spread individually into academia, family, friends, and themselves, we need to greatly humanise both their abilities and what we expect from them. To include this mindset into the structure itself, there must be either a lesser load in terms of sections of campus it can represent or a dramatic shift in the number of members elected. Ultimately, we have to consider the structural failures of a flawed system, the sheer size and diversity of Ashoka, along with the fact that as a new university, we have no real precedents to guide us. There are simply too many people, and too many sections of campus, that are dependent on the SG for representation. The fact of the SG themselves being students can never be overstated, and under the idea of theoretical government, our current system shines as functional. However, we already know that this system is a failed one, and as explored above, by radically shifting some of the basics of our electoral system we can finally begin construction on a house that has needed renovation for too long. 

Note: The original version of this article had quoted a student email to support the author’s claim about how resignations are seen as a “lazier cop-out option” but the quote was removed once we were notified of how it misrepresented the sentiment behind the email.

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