Confused Rhetoric and Tall Promises: The Candidates’ Debate

by Raunaq Singh Bawa (UG’24)

TW: Multiple mentions of sexual harassment (SH)

On 2nd October, Friday, the AUEC organised a Candidates’ Debate for the upcoming by-elections. Moderated by Rithupar Pathy (ASP’22) and Chaitanyaa Nair (UG’23), the debate was attended by only five of the six candidates contesting*: Bhavye Jain, Jai Desai, Karan Lobana, Neha Sheik, and Shreya Jain. Student attendance in the session was a dismal 93 at its peak, dropping to slightly over 35 towards the end.

*Nipun Jain could not attend the debate as he was called into isolation.

The debate was initiated by a round of opening statements. Going first, Jai stressed on the importance of better engagement of the Student Government (SG) with the student body. Neha expressed faith in the efficacy of the SG and wished to carry forward the work it has been doing. She also talked about reforming the electoral system, which she believed presently accorded unfair advantages to candidates from larger parties.

Karan, a former head of technology at the Election Commission (AUEC), stressed on the three pillars of his agenda: 1) bringing stability to the HoR; 2) reforming the electoral system; and 3) democratising communication between the student body and the administration by conducting referendums. Bhavye spoke at length on the idea of “informal interactions” between the SG and students.

Shreya outlined the “personal” nature of her motivation to join the HoR—she described witnessing first-hand the “personal distress” caused by the problem of sexual harassment in the SG and claimed to be committed to the issue.

The opening statements were followed by a round of questions posed by the moderators.

Given recent events, how will you restore the confidence of the student body in the SG and make the SG relevant again?

All candidates agreed with the importance of increased transparency in addressing this issue. Karan argued for the importance of structural reforms in improving the accountability of HoR members. Neha’s solution entailed making the SG more representative of minority interests by discussing political issues of national and international nature, which may affect students from areas afflicted with political strife. She backed this argument with her own example as a student from Kashmir. Jai’s contrary perspective of the student body being allowed to vote on what issues the SG should discuss was rebutted by Neha, who argued that such a measure would lead to majoritarian tendencies being expressed in SG discussions.

On the culture of sexual harassment at Ashoka: There have been a number of instances of sexual harassment in the general student body and in the SG and political parties—how do you plan to address this issue?

Karan noted that existing frameworks set up to deal with sexual harassment cases—like CASH—not working perfectly in the past, and whisper networks “lacking an official mandate”, resulting in students’ reluctance in utilising these means of redressal. He argued for structural reforms to make these means safe and effective. This argument overlooks the fact that despite “lacking an official mandate,” whisper networks were effective in causing representatives accused of sexual harassment to resign. Neha questioned Jai’s solution of regular sensitisation on SH matters being done by the HoR in tandem with clubs and societies, observing it may not be very different from the status quo of the “Ministry of Culture framework” for the same. Jai’s defence was that his solution entailed a “better platform” and “improved sensitisation.” Shreya brought out her motivation to act on the issue, being a former member of Kirdaar, a club mired by sexual harassment allegations.

What measures can the SG take for workers’ welfare?

Neha stressed on the need to pressurise the Administration in fulfilling its promise of giving students representation in the Board of Management (the SG already has an invitee status). Shreya made the controversial point of students having a bad campus experience if workers are poorly treated. Her solutions included “physical protest” and a “virtual meeting with the VC” on these issues. Karan argued for the independence of the Workers’ Welfare Committee  and for the direct hiring of workers as opposed to through third-party contractors.

Following the conclusion of this round, the moderators directed questions to candidates based on their affidavits.

Bhavye was asked to clarify on wanting to make the SG more “exclusive”, as mentioned in his affidavit. Bhavye explained that he intended to make the SG more “inclusive”, not “exclusive”, and that the error was a typo.

Asked to elaborate further on his structural reforms’ proposal, Karan elucidated the importance of anonymous student referendums to alleviate the issue of a “vocal minority” putting out statements claiming to represent the student body.

After this round, the moderators opened the floor to the audience to direct questions to the candidates. The audience pulled no punches.

A question was directed towards the issue of electoral reforms—if the HoR tries to impose reform in the electoral system, will that not infringe on the autonomy of the AUEC? This question cut to the heart of the contradictions within the candidates’ arguments, many of whom had argued on the planks of electoral reform as well as increased EC autonomy. Karan’s response of it being a “step-by-step, circular process” left much room for interpretation. The tenability of his position was further weakened once the moderators also joined in this line of questioning—the Ashokan Constitution was invoked, fact-checks were carried out, and Karan was humbled. At this juncture, Jai expressed his disagreement with the agenda of increasing the EC’s autonomy, arguing that the HoR, by virtue of being an elected body, should have a say in the EC’s decisions—a particularly bold statement, considering he would have to debate not just Karan, but also Montesquieu, Locke, and over five centuries worth of political thought to justify this position.

A question was raised attacking the very legitimacy of these elections—if there are only six candidates contesting for a total of ten seats, is this entire process not just a “formality?” In an act of apparent bravery, Neha was the sole candidate volunteering to reply, arguing that the very presence of the candidates and their efforts to contest these elections demonstrated that these were not just a formality.

Jai’s affiliation with Cefil Joseph Soans, a former representative accused of sexual harassment, was brought up by a student who questioned the moral justification for Jai debating the issue of sexual harassment in the debate. Jai’s defence of not being “aware of the circumstances” and of no “institutional procedure” being initiated allowed Neha to question whether he was discounting the importance of whisper networks. In a sharp retort to Jai’s remark that his relationship with Cefil was a “personal” one, Neha labelled him as “extremely hypocritical.” A student’s pointed question on Jai sharing a public platform (referencing ‘Starzz’) with Cefil elicited a head-turning response from Jai: “no, it’s not okay”. Though he reassured the audience of a reasonable explanation regarding this association, he never really provided any.

Finally, the candidates were asked for closing remarks, and the debate was subsequently concluded. 

While the debate addressed a number of essential issues affecting the student body and the institution of Ashoka as a whole, it was not the most heartening discourse. Barring a few instances, there was a marked lack of engagement among candidates with one another’s arguments, thus making the session feel more like a round of campaign speeches and a Q&A event. Though the candidates proposed many general ideas, the specifics were not always forthcoming, thus leaving several loose ends— How do you reform independent bodies like CASH? How does the “circular” process of electoral reform work if you want to make the EC more autonomous from the SG? Will you have new bodies set up to check the accountability of representatives? What will such a body look like?

Most importantly, what is the significance of this election when the number of seats exceeds the number of candidates, and how successful will the candidates emerging from such a contest be in restoring the credibility of the SG? Of course, there is also cause for optimism, with the importance given in the debates to inclusivity, accountability, transparency, and to general structural reform. Only time will tell whether such optimism is well-founded and whether these questions will be answered. Tall promises have been made, and Ashoka will look up to its new representatives to reward its faith.

Any views expressed in this article are personal.

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