by Mohammed Amaan Asim (UG’22)
In June this year Ashokan student politics was in the doldrums owing to multiple defects and dents in what was an arguably imperfect system. Today, after several months we have only sunk lower. The Ashokan election system and its politics haven’t been restructured to reflect the demands and expectations of the student body, and instead sowed further disbelief and doubt. In choosing to retain the existing electoral system, failing to institute any mechanism to filter out potential harassers and abusers, limiting the voting franchisee, and in taking up no confidence building measures, Ashokan politics had failed it’s electorate.
However, through more omissions and commissions during the campaigning period, the failure of the AUEC and by extension Ashokan politics has finally reached its nadir. A glitch occurred during the elections when the results were made visible mid way through the voting. It went unnoticed until I raised the same to the Chief Election Officer. By erroneously displaying the results mid-way through the election, there was an opportunity to negatively influence and skew the election. And in choosing to actively not acknowledge or apologise for this error, the AUEC has misled and betrayed the faith of the electorate.
Prior to voting day as well, it can hardly be argued that the election was going as planned, unless the plan was to overturn any sense of faith or belief one had in student politics. Due to accusations that arose against a candidate, the AUEC abruptly cancelled the first debate. However, the student body was left waiting for the link for the event that never arrived. Instead, the following morning an email was received apologising for the same. It is pertinent that the events that led to the withdrawal of the candidate, were neither explained nor informed by the Interim HoR nor the AUEC to the larger student body. Instead, the President of the Interim HoR addressed the sequence of events in a Facebook comment replying to an accusation raised against their involvement in the same. Did the Ashokan student body not deserve a line of explanation, or the sequence of events that transpired leading to the same? Has transparency to the electorate been overridden by EC discretion? Or was it simply deemed irrelevant? While I yield to concerns with regards to confidentiality and legality due to the sensitive nature of the case, these concerns could easily be circumvented by choosing to anonymise the accused etc. and by providing some context to the electorate.
Post the withdrawal of several other candidates, just six candidates stood for six positions in the HoR the by-elections continued. An election sans the essential element of contestation and competition went on. The election has been reduced to a ratification rather than an active choice by the electorate. The large percentage of NOTA votes,an astounding 1380 votes and close to 30% of total votes cast, as compared to the last election’s approximately 9% of total votes cast is an indicator of the lack of faith in the system and the candidates. The election was meant to renew and restore a new order in the Ashokan polity but with a lower turnout than the past two elections, it instead has been reduced to a procedural and symbolic formality.
While being sympathetic to the Election Commission, having myself gone through the gruel and grind, things could have easily been different. At the onset, the idea of a by-election instead of a full-fledged election (as proposed during my tenure) pressurises the existing members of the House to continue in their positions much to their chagrin and disenfranchises the largest portion of the student body, the batch of UG24. Moreover, by choosing to continue with the same electoral system rather than alter it to something that was accessible and fair, the election commission erred. The Swiss PR system was flawed and had precipitated much of the earlier challenges that occurred, such as the filling up of vacancies. Even in the existing by-election system, by building faith through constructive changes in the elections, more participation could have been encouraged. A focus on building political parties and increasing contestation could have been possible. Moreover, a minimum threshold of votes to ensure legitimacy or a minimum number of candidates could have been ensured to add some credibility.
While these could easily have been changed and altered to boost the student body’s faith in their representative system, other challenges were more systemic and were part of larger administrative and legal issues. This includes the issue of accused harassers and abusers who received NOCs without any red flags raised. Creative election specific mechanisms such as a period of raising objections prior to the publishing of the final list of candidates could have allowed for these issues to possibly be solved. Certainly there is no fool-proof solution, but by fine-tuning proposals that were raised during the open meetings in months prior, an attempt could have been made at making elections a safe space.
The proposals we had placed accounted for the widespread changes that were needed but due to the constraints of time couldn’t be ratified through ballot measures or through referendums. For instance, we proposed changing the election system after an informal referendum, and the same to be ratified as the default election system through ballot measures. While a decisive approach was required to weather the storm, the steps taken could have received the public stamp of approval eventually. Moreover, while most proposals were mowed down due to the challenge of time constraints, the current by-election is being conducted six weeks into the semester and more than 2 months into the appointment of the Chief Election Officer.
The Election Commission’s role and responsibility in conducting these measures to bolster participation and legitimacy is most visible. However the inherent and inbuilt limitations of the system do limit the capacity to act as proactively as the Election Commission would like to. Certain proposals, for instance, call for an amendment to the constitution, that don’t necessarily come through due to the House’s reluctance to pass the same. The student body is partially complicit as well with it’s limited engagement with Ashokan polity, especially during non-election season to brainstorm and ratify reforms. An unfortunate mix of the limitations of the system, lack of initiative by members within the political system and low level of engagement by students has furthered the deterioration of the Ashokan political system.
Undoubtedly, Ashokan student politics is unforgiving to all its participants. The pressure on candidates, HoR members, and Election Commissioners to pull through public scrutiny and still perform is challenging and arduous to say the least. My thoughts and opinions do not discount the tremendous mental pressures and strains that us 20-something year olds’ are thrust into. It is no easy task to represent 2000 plus individuals or to seamlessly run an election, while balancing academic and social commitments. However, we cannot simply choose to give the benefit of the doubt and not hold to account those who chose to willingly accept this very public role. The Election Commission had a blank slate to reform, restructure and reorganise Ashokan student politics, but it has only contributed in destabilising and deconstructing the system further.
Amaan is a former Election Commissioner at the AUEC. He is majoring in Political Science.
All views expressed are personal.