Questions the Syndicate must answer to get my vote
by Vishnu Prakash
In the one semester I have been covering the Student Government, the one common opinion that everyone seems to have is that change is desperately needed in Ashokan student politics. The political system of Ashoka is still recovering from the events of the past year, which saw the slow but steady erosion of the legitimacy of the House as an institution, characterized by mass resignations, unpopular representatives, abysmal public participation levels, limited electorates, and a seemingly reduced importance. It became glaringly clear that something had to give and that we couldn’t tread the same path as we had done earlier. We would either need a fundamental rethink of the current SG, electoral, and HOR system, or fill the 8th HOR with new faces and fresh ideas – which is exactly what the Allied Socialist Syndicate (ASS) claims to be.
It is undeniable that ASS, a party led and dominated by freshers, a party that wears its Leftist ideology on its sleeve, a party that has never censored itself while criticizing the current political class of Ashokans, and a party that wants to bring about radical changes to the SG itself, invites a welcome freshness to Ashokan politics. At its inception, ASS was a promising group of young politicians (I would know, I almost joined them… twice) ready to take on the establishment, and as the establishment crumbled around it, it became the only player left. While a degree of that excitement remains around the newest biggest party in Ashokan politics, their actions in the months since inception have made me (and I suspect some others) reconsider what was initially an assured vote in their favor.
An Opaque Transparency
With a funny name and an openly accessible Constitution, ASS burst onto the scene in September, pledging accessibility, accountability, and transparency. They went so far as to say that “any political force – new or old – that finds itself operating in this environment must strive to be completely transparent, inherently accessible, and thoroughly energetic.” ASS positioned itself as being unlike its predecessors – a party transparent and interactive with its supporters. The reality of the last 4 months however, has been unfortunate. Perhaps I was too optimistic, but my expectation of a transparent party was very different from the ASS experience. A transparent party informs its supporters when changes are made to its Working Committee. A transparent party informs its base when there is a new President, and when the old one departs their post. The Syndicate website lists that there have been two Presidents (Geetanjali Roy and Aditi Warrier), two Chief Outreach Officers (Aditya Feroz Sen and Aditya Nair), and two Editors-in-Chief of Safdarjung (Aditi Warrier and Kevin Mutta), all in four months. Where have the announcements been for these appointments? What was the process of these appointments? Have there been any internal elections? If they have, then why have the results and procedure not been made public? And if they haven’t, then why not? Aside from the occasional statement released on social media, the Syndicate has shown no commitment to making any knowledge of the internal workings of the party public. In their public meeting, purposely or not, they evaded questions from The Edict’s SG Newsdesk co-editor Riddhi Verma about their Internal Complaints Mechanism, something that is of great importance. There has been one public meeting, and no records about how decisions are made within the party have been made publicly available. These are the standards one expects of a party that made transparency a foundational plank of their existence.
In their public meeting on January 14th and manifesto, ASS presented their take on an Expanded Parliamentary (EP) system, in what was presented as a fresh, representative outlook on the SG and the HoR. Most of the promises made by the party are helpful and needed, but some of the main things ASS proposes raise a few questions. Let’s tackle the Expanded Parliament first. In short, the Syndicate wants to expand the membership of the HoR to 21, and also have 9 Senators present in Parliament – who are chosen by parties, who in turn have seats allocated to them according to their vote-share in elections proposed in monsoon semesters. Senators will only be present in Government for two months at a time, and parties will have to replace their set of Senators every two months. The party claims that elections at Ashoka reflected personal popularity, and should be fought and contested based on ideology, preferably ideologies which are manifested in the form of some political party.
Obvious as it may be, the first question that ASS needs to answer on the EP is how they’ve come to arrive at the numbers they have. Why 21 Representatives, why 9 Senators? If the party is intent on being the first to change the system as we know it, they have to do it with an open and clear logic so as to set a precedent for future Governments that want to undertake similar measures. Having contested a grand total of zero elections, it puzzles me as to how the Syndicate have arrived at the conclusion that elections are mere popularity contests. Firstly, popularity is an important part of being a politician. But even if we do assume they’re right in saying that popularity is the primary decider of elections at Ashoka, then how does the Senate fix that? If voters vote simply based on popularity, then the Senate elections will see the parties with the most socially popular leadership or membership triumph.
What is undeniable is that the Syndicate are committed to making Ashokan politics a game of ideology and not individuals. They’ve tried to offset this by reserving two seats in the House for independents, but this cannot distract from the fact that they are trying to reserve a third of the Parliament for parties. That is the deeper question that both ASS and the electorate need to tackle – do we need ideological parties? Can elections and governance not be on the basis of individual issues, rather than larger ideologies. In the Accountability Debate, former SG members almost unanimously warned students that we must do away with ideological wars, govern based on issues, and make the Student Government more direct. Direct governance involves strengthening the mandates of the ministries, allowing for more referendums, and in essence making the House a logistical body that exists for “fire-fighting” as current representative Rhea put it.
It would not be unfair to say that since their inception, ASS has had a tense relationship with the ministries at Ashoka. These tensions were borne out of an article in Safdarjang, which unfairly criticized the Ministry of Academic Affairs’ efforts in changing the FC structure. This criticism was made without actually asking the Ministry for comments, and multiple members of the Ministry pointed out errors in the article in the Syndicate’s Instagram comment section.
In their open meeting, ASS faced the ire of Ministry members who criticized their manifesto and vision for the future. This criticism should come as no surprise since the primary proposals of the Syndicate clip the wings of the Ministries. ASS not only want to do away with the constitutional requirement for the President to consult with an outgoing Minister in the appointment of their successor, they also want to remove the right of outgoing Ministers to stay on for a month as advisors. ASS argued that since the President is the head of the cabinet, they must not have to consult with Ministers before making an appointment. Ananya, the Campus Life Minister argued that there is a certain “experiential knowledge and skill set” that is required to be a Minister, and only someone in the Cabinet can understand what it takes. The Syndicate would do well to understand the President is only the ceremonial head of the Cabinet. If ASS wants to allow the President to intervene in matters of the Cabinet, one cannot be surprised if they continue to dilute the separation between the Legislature and the Executive once they come to power. Former members of the House both at the open meeting, and at the Accountability Debate warned against this on multiple occasions. The current President of the House even went so far as to say that “The HoR will not know where to draw the line” if the legislature and executive are not completely separated. ASS raised the point that Ministers may be “political agents” and so they should not have any say in what goes on after their official term is complete. Ashoka runs on the politics of good faith, and so to imply that any Minister may be biased in taking on their constitutional duties as a Minister suggests a fundamental mischaracterisation on the part of the Syndicate that betrays a hostility between them and the current Ministers. Do the Syndicate really mistrust the ministers? Or is it just a convenient excuse to concentrate power in the hands of the President? Ashoka is not a country– Ministers and Presidents can disagree and get along with each other. To alter the Constitution to prevent this would result not only in the permeation of bad-faith politics but also in unchecked power in the hands of a President, who may frankly be unqualified to deal with matters of the Ministries.
There are still weeks of campaigning left, and most Ashokans seem undecided on their vote in the General Election. If ASS wants to capture these votes, then clarifying the above concerns is likely a good start.
Note: Views expressed in the above article are solely the author’s.