By Riddhi Verma
Note: In this article, the culture around non-SH related resignations is being examined.
Over the past months, campus politics has taken an unprecedented turn. For the first time we have seen such a large number of resignations within the student government (SG), with 4/5ths of the house resigning in a mere 4 months from the start of its term, a statistic that will soon increase come August 28th. The body will soon be left without a president for a second time this term, pushing the house into more unchartered waters. With so many falling prey to resignations, we begin to wonder whether the system itself is to blame or the culture and conversations that have been long festering between student representatives and the student body.
When it comes to the culture of mental health and pressures of student political life, sensitivity is incredibly necessary. However, it is also pertinent to acknowledge the existence of these burdens and be mindful of them before taking them on. During an anonymous opinions group discussion, a student mentions that “mental health in general is a very dicey topic to talk about, and you understand that someone needs to take a step back to preserve their mental health, but then there is no step forward after that.” This echoes a key problem. Despite reaching out to multiple representatives who resigned citing the grounds of mental health, none wanted to discuss the culture around it, or how we can better it. Though the onus cannot only be on them to start these conversations, there does need to be initiative somewhere. So then, where do we begin?
Amidst the chaos, we must also note that, systematically, the current electoral process of Swiss Proportional Representation (PR) was introduced to overcome “massive resignations” (and has ostensibly failed to deliver on it). This is something former election commissioner Shashank Mattoo had mentioned in an earlier conversation with the Edict while vouching for the electoral change. Therefore, it becomes important to take into account how successful a reversal might be, considering resignations were a primary issue under the old system of single transferable PR. Students, representatives, and ministers alike are now desperately searching for different reforms and ways to better the system.
In a recent interview, soon-to-resign Minister of Parliamentary Affairs (MPA), Aakangsha Dutta, spoke up about the need for “serious structural reform”, a term which she feels has been thrown around rather liberally without any talk of substantial change. In this search, it therefore becomes especially important to acknowledge where exactly the system is failing and breeding such a poor culture. The student body can only deduce this failure, as the resigned SG member points out, through comprehensively “reading data and gauging public opinion”- something she aimed to do in her remaining term as a minister, but can no longer see through.
Many house members who have resigned have cited very short and brief reasons, some stating mental health, while others state having lost public faith. Aakangsha mentions in our call that she was hesitant to accept her seat to begin with. Her faltering trust in the SG was already building on June 8th, the day she was offered the seat, just four days before the Election Commission’s (AUEC) controversial meeting.
The final structural ruin of the house has been largely attributed to this meeting. In the meeting, the AUEC took the forefront in discussing constitutional reform, as well as serious recommendations regarding the dissolution of the house, at a point where the house was without the leadership of a president and largely defenseless. Following this meeting, the largest slew of resignations came with three members resigning within minutes of the meeting ending. Proper disaster management therefore comes to mind when thinking of unprecedented resignations- one wrong step and a domino effect can be set off.
In an interview with erstwhile SG president Deep Vakil, he points out how perhaps if the AUEC had waited for the house to appoint a new president and scheduled a meeting in a more thought-out manner, giving the house time to react and adapt to the new changes with some forethought, things might have turned out differently.
In this post-election accountability debate, the reality is that many students feel more betrayed having few properly elected representatives, rather than flawed ones who can still promise change. In the same opinions group discussion, one student ardently expressed their frustration regarding the same, stating how many of the public faith resignations were akin to the sentiment “sorry I threw a brick at your forehead, but now I am just going to walk away hoping that’s enough to prevent a massive bruise.”
This brings to question whether resignation is the easier way out of a much larger problem. Afterall, hurdles and mistakes were both anticipated and have happened in multiple houses. However, while cancel culture and polarisation have certainly gotten more overwhelming online, student representatives don’t have impossible standards to achieve.
Given that, it is important to understand why so many SG members have suddenly felt a greater onset of pressure. In my conversation with Deep Vakil, who has publicly expressed his struggle with mental health following his presidential appointment before, many important insights were made into the idea of “high standards” and how an online semester propagated them. He chalks up the spike in “unrealistic expectations among the student body” to the increasing distance between the student body and the working of the SG. With a smaller percentage of students being involved in the SG or any of its related bodies as the batches pass, most find themselves unaware of, and sadly uninterested in, the onground reality of its work. When talking about character expectations, and the fear many representatives have regarding cancel culture, Deep agrees that expectations have increased, and rightly so as “we cannot always expect the student body to be perpetually and perineally forgiving of the SG’s mistakes”
A general observation, however, is that when one, of their own accord stands up to be in the public eye, and are then elected, only to encounter unprecedented circumstances, they should introspect harder about their role and actively converse “with fellow colleagues” (a path that helped Deep avoid resigning) before choosing to tap out. There is clearly a need to build stronger cross-party cooperation, trust, and collaboration, as well as a culture of support in the student government and body alike.
Furthermore, while a 15 member government certainly cannot be expected to uphold and better every aspect of the student body – a body that will soon consist of over 3000 students across cohorts – what kind of government can? The question now is, what kind of house can truly represent students’ interests while respecting its own, as well as acknowledging its limitations rather than promising to be the beginning and end to all student problems. Perhaps then, the most significant alleviation of pressure will be to increase the number of elected representatives from merely a 15-member house, something that has been in the works and proposed numerous times in previous Houses.
This large exodus from campus politics has also greatly tainted the SG with a lack of faith and trust. The SG now more than ever needed unity, as our university faces tough negotiations ahead with both the administration and board of management. Resigning MPA Aakangsha shares this sentiment, as she foreshadows admin exploitation under the interim house.
In speaking about holding public office again, Aakangsha states that she “doesn’t want to represent the student body anymore,” as she has “lost trust in the student body.” This highlights a realistic sentiment that pinches at the political apathy running rampant through the student body. How can the SG begin to take up its role, if students view themselves as consumers of the SG’s work rather than active participants in its working? As Deep Vakil points out, many students feel their responsibility ends at voting but that’s actually where it begins. Moreover, a large number of resignations can be attributed to the growing notion that when a representative actually delivers on work, there are only few students that notice, but when there are mistakes, the number increases hundredfold.
Essentially, we need to understand how much accountability truly is there in the form of resignation. In certain cases, resigning is the most responsible choice. However, feeling a loss of public faith before the public even has a chance to confirm it has only caused further confusions. Sudden and misunderstood resignations only trivialise the democratic process, weakening student institutions and their agency. The brute reality remains that politics will always be taxing. Elected representatives carry forth the burdens of many others, something that is quite literally in their job description. Evidently there is a growing need to form structural support groups for the SG as well as rebuild faith within our student institutions. Perhaps, at the end of the day, we also have to address each other as human beings, young adults, and mere 20 year-olds. In this commonality we will find a lot more struggle and a lot more strength, as well as a lot more forgiveness and reform.