Rethinking the HoR: Worth Another Shot?

  • by Hiya Chowdhury, UG’23

In the third part of the Edict’s series: HoR Insights, our writers delve into a deep analysis of the House of Representatives of Ashoka University’s Student Government. They study student politics through the relationship between the HoR and the Cabinet, and discuss the current relevance of and issues surrounding the HoR. In the first part of this article, Hiya Chowdhury (UG 23) writes in favour of the HoR continuing to hold relevance within Ashoka University. Meanwhile, in the second part, Rutuparna Deshpande (UG 23) focuses on the problems that exist with the HoR and proposes solutions accordingly.

Student politics at Ashoka has gone through its fair share of dizzying turbulence in the last few months. In many ways, this turbulence has now become a signature feature of the Ashokan political framework, and a pall seems to have set in over the general state of student politics: new parties and re-instated Houses feel now like they have been built for collapse. Engagement with student politics seems to be at an all-time low. And with this sense of apathy,there comes a level of inertia, wherein it perhaps becomes easier to live with this decline than attempt collectively to reverse its trajectory. Now might be a good time to go back to the basics: return to the drawing board, find what has worked in the past, what is likely to work in the future, and analyze these solutions systematically and collectively. And in doing so, we must look at  what is perhaps the most fraught relationship in the Ashokan Student Government–that between the House of Representatives and the Cabinet.

The HoR has long been the most visible face of the Ashokan Student Government: it’s the body that both reaps the credit when the SG succeeds and faces the brunt of our collective ire when the SG falters. And being the body that is the only  directly elected body by the student body, this is a responsibility the HoR knowingly shoulders. However, this responsibility can be as crippling as it is essential. The slew of resignations by House members and the constantly shifting orientations of this representative body in recent times are very much a product of the amount of power, responsibility and accountability shouldered by the HoR. The HoR’s mandate is broad–it swings from forwarding emails to negotiations with the administration to mobilization with remarkable swiftness–which is a signifier of the amount of power localized in its ambit. The Cabinet, on the other hand, functions as a set of independent Ministries with specialized areas of concern, and as the executive arm of the SG: the role of the Ministries is quieter, perhaps less visible due to their more independent, non-partisan status, though in no way less integral. 

Given the current state of affairs, then, it is clear that the pendulum can shift one of two ways: we can either make stronger modifications to the current system of centralizing as much power as possible with the HoR, or we can overhaul this system and devolve more power to the Ministries by increasing the scope and breadth of their responsibilities. Both these systems have their merits and setbacks.   We must ask: in the current circumstances, when a sense of instability has become synonymous with the functioning of the SG, is it worth it to conduct the kind of drastic overhaul that the latter situation necessarily requires? Or might it be worth considering that our faith in the system we hold as of now needs to be reposed in more constructive ways?

The centralisation of power with the HoR isn’t a fixture of the Ashokan Student Government without reason The HoR formalizes the need for a representative body that is constantly firefighting–and as alarmist as this may sound, the issues the student body has been dealing with in recent times do require a body with a mandate as broad and unending as this. We have come a long way from the “vending-machine politics” of past years at Ashoka: as a university, our concerns have become larger, more momentous, and more immediate. Be it the protests regarding Professor Mehta’s resignation, the fundraising that the SG undertook during the second wave, or the endless negotiations with the administration and painstaking demands for mobilization it takes to rouse a student body to action–the HoR has been the only body that has risen to this challenge in the past. And these issues will only continue to expand, as the recent concerns with regards to workers’ welfare at Ashoka have shown us. 

In the configuration we currently have, it is difficult to imagine that a string of independent Ministries could achieve what a centralized, unified HoR could under these circumstances. Under what ambit do student demonstrations and protests fall–academic affairs or campus life? Which Ministry can take up the cudgel of organizing more national engagement at Ashoka? Indeed, even in the future, if the questions such as those of affirmative action become a more tangible reality than an empty promise made to embellish party manifestos–who could help take that forward? These aren’t concerns that could be handled simply by a haphazardly organized emergency council of sorts, scrounged together at the eleventh hour. Delivering on these issues requires a well-established structure and experience with political action, both of which the HoR possesses currently. This is not to say that Ministries cannot, at some point in the future, be expanded in scope enough to undertake these issues, but we must ask: what are we losing in the meantime? If issues of a broad-based nature like the ones mentioned above crop up while this expansion takes place, are we setting ourselves up for failure?

 If the general structure of the SG were to be kept the same in terms of the distribution of power, we could perhaps evaluate better what works and what doesn’t instead of introducing to the current slew of problems a whole new set of confusions and perplexities. The question of opening Ministerial positions up for elections as we do away with the House, will presumably require a slew of constitutional changes and who is in charge of making those decisions?   By proposing not keeping power centralized with the HoR, we may be endangering the speed and efficacy of admin communications and student mobilisations, the vitality of the partisan politics at Ashoka, and the ability to ask for accountability when it is sorely required.

This is not to say that there doesn’t exist a problem–the fact that student politics at Ashoka right now simply does not work is clear to anyone who’s paying attention. However, precisely because of that, it is perhaps our responsibility to focus on fixing the parts of our system that seem broken, instead of breaking down that which has always worked in our favour. The issues that exist right now have very much to do with the mental health concerns of those in the HoR, the excessively blurred lines between personal and professional relationships in the HoR, a difficult work culture that expects one to be available at all hours of the day, and so on and so forth. However, it might be worth a try to focus more on how to fix these particular problems in ways that do not endanger the only parts of the SG that currently seem to work and have been successful for a substantial period of time now. The onus needs to be on us, as a student body, to collectively analyze these options and work towards the ones that least portend another collapse: another situation where existing House members are the last to know and the last to care about important campus issues, where interaction with students politics is fraught at best and comical at worst, and where student representation is difficult to track, let alone depend on.

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