The Independent Student Newspaper of Ashoka University

Why We Need Sortition at Ashoka

Jyoti S. Nayak and Rohan Parikh, Batch of 2019

Nineteenth-century painting by Philipp Foltz depicting the Athenian politician Pericles delivering his famous funeral oration in front of the Assembly (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

On 14th February, our university will enter into its 3rd annual celebration: the spectacle of democracy. From a pool of 1,100-odd students, we will elect 15 members who we deem fit to legislate the promises that they shall make to us over the next few days. A fresh, and hopefully responsible, House of Representatives (HoR) will carry forward the tradition set up by our very first undergraduate batch.

Elections are sacred rituals where the values of the community are inscribed onto the ballot paper by individual voters. As election season nears, we are all ready to mount the high horse of democracy. Yet, are we confident of the principles that uphold our system, or are we simply allowing a ‘cool’ idea to thrive, regardless of its utility to our needs?

This question begs serious attention for three reasons.

  1. The first reason deals with the nature of Ashokan election. We see parties simply echo one other. If we analyze the manifestos of the parties in the previous election, we find that at no point do they really oppose each other. Admittedly, each issue is important and requires addressal. Yet, each party simply reiterates the same problem in their manifesto. Electoral rhetoric at Ashoka then becomes a contest over who can articulate the same points in the most elegant manner.
  2. We are presently confronting some serious issues, among which is the dearth of a culture of liberal dialogue on this campus. Periodic and incessant fights on social media are the most telling symptom of this problem, thus creating a problem of superficial consideration of serious issues, undermining the exchange and discourse that are key to the democratic model.
  3. As we grow from a tiny community into an institution, we are noticing how communitarian sentiments are gradually fading away. This reflects in the way a lot of people don’t come up to partake in responsibilities. Most of the work is done by a select few. The idea of this University now stands at a crucial juncture as we enter into the liminal space, leaving behind the initial euphoria. The culture that has been long cherished seems vulnerable.

Like many things Western that we at Ashoka emulate, we’ve also adopted the Proportional Representation system. We really need to rethink if election is the best instrument both to preserve the Ashoka culture and to open up new avenues of inclusivity, creativity, and freedom.

Historically, elections have never been conceived as a promissory note of equality. Rather, they were devised to create an aristocratic distinction between the ruler and the ruled. Thus, democracy is dispossessed of its very essence, with elections becoming the battlefield upon which different interests fight to establish their dominance.

Democracy proper, on the other hand, never had election. In the city of Athens, where democracy got its meaning, sortition was the rule of the game. It was randomized lottery rather than voting which would select those upon whom the responsibility of legislation would be bestowed. Office was not necessarily attractive. Rather, it was understood as a responsibility which must be equally shared by all citizens. Until this novel system was fettered and eclipsed by the discourse of ‘merit’ in the modern period, uncertainty used to rule over the anxiety of power. It balanced the perennial political question of legitimacy versus efficiency.

Interestingly enough, the term ‘ballot’ is derived from the Italian ballotte, which refers to the balls that were used in drawing lots. Thus, randomness was at the core of democracy, neutralizing any possibility of conflict. Everyone, in theory, would have an opportunity to speak sooner than later.

Replacing the House of Representatives (HoR) with an open assembly based on sortition (selection by drawing lots) can reinvent the camaraderie of sentiments that is gradually dissolving on this campus.

Five reasons lead us to believe so.

  1. To be a member of the HoR, hardly any special knowledge or expertise is needed. One does not require a specialization to hold office. Except for the IT ministry, where some amount of technical knowledge is needed, so one practically does not have to be an ‘expert’ to represent their voice in the open assembly. The emphasis should be on representation, rather than getting articulate people to the fore.
  2. This campus has a strong commitment to social justice which is shown in its celebration of diversity. Yet, the line between maintaining diversity and patronizing others must not be blurred. Lottery too can be an instrument to ensure diversity in the student assembly.
  3. Each individual at Ashoka comes with baggage — a host of experiences and realities that cannot be appropriated or represented by anyone other than the individual herself. Be it issues such as mental health, or the aesthetics of our campus — each individual has a valid insight to offer. HoR members, with their attempts to bring collective interest to the fore, necessarily fail in representing the full spectrum of thoughts and ideas that can be conveyed by individuals. This becomes the most compelling reason for the system of sortition to replace elections. The Ashokan reality is determined by its experiences — it is only right that the people should speak for themselves. This goes beyond the current election: it is in lieu of shaping the way we view ourselves as a community that such individuality in decision-making is sought.
  4. This establishes a culture of liberal dialogue. We will learn to listen to one another and confront serious issues. Nobody is left behind, by choice or otherwise. Everyone gets a chance to be heard — and not in the way each political party promises, by way of representing popular interest— but literally, since the onus is now on the individual. A large proportion of the student body still remains inert on this campus. Sortition might break that inertia to create an idiom of shared responsibility. Participation will revive trust.
  5. Ashoka is a great place to experiment this system: our few numbers, drive for change, and empathy for issues makes this fertile grounds to revolutionize the process of decision-making. We might not lose much if we don’t have elections, yet there is a potential that we open up a plethora of new possibilities.

When we have a party which claims that it started as a joke, why shouldn’t we give this new system a chance? The “fear of the man on the street” has to be replaced with the yet unexplored possibilities of randomness, inclusivity and unprecedented participation. As Tocqueville puts it, “ profit from society’s benefit, one must submit to its burden”. Office of responsibility should not be something to be fought over — rather it is something that must be equitably shared by all. That is what sortition aims at, and that is what we need.

Disclaimer: Both authors have been associated with Dhamma. Views are personal.

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