Jyoti S. Nayak and Rohan Parikh, Batch of 2019 Nineteenth-century painting by Philipp Foltz depicting the
by Aggam Walia, UG’22
In the past three years, the Ashoka University Election Commission (AUEC) has been fairly active in commenting on and interfering in campus politics. Be it proposing the electoral referendum in 2019 or unilaterally dissolving the seats of the President and the Leader of Opposition in June 2021, such moves by a body that is meant to be non-partisan and procedural certainly raises eyebrows. In a political culture where partisan members of the student body move in and out of the AUEC with considerable ease, it is all the more important to think about the role the AUEC plays versus the role it should play in campus politics. As part of the HoR Insights series, the following analysis will look at the relationship between the House of Representatives and the AUEC, and identify the flawed and problematic aspects of it.
According to Article V, Section 9.3 of the Constitution, the HoR cannot amend the electoral system as declared in Section 2.7 of the same article. It states that the AUEC has the sole authority to propose amendments to the electoral system which must pass in a public referendum that is ratified by the House. Depending upon the results of the referendum, the AUEC is required to make the relevant changes to the section that states the electoral system. This procedure was duly followed in the 2019 referendum that resulted in the selection of the Modified Swiss-PR electoral system that endures to this day. In the referendum proposal shared with the student body, the AUEC explicitly states that it “has decided to undertake a monumental reform of the election system” and explains “the need for reform, the proposed replacement systems and the procedure for reform.”
The above example illustrates that not only is the AUEC a procedural body that presents information to the student body and conducts referendums, it also has the mandate to partake in substantive conversations around institutions that form the bedrock of Ashokan politics. This tension is reflected in an email the AUEC sent to the student body on 20th November 2019 in which it has attached a presentation on the referendum. The body of the email reads:
The AUEC is attaching a very short presentation that gives you all the information you need for the referendum. No opinions, just facts.
The claim made in the second sentence is intriguing to say the least. I do not doubt that the presentation was in fact factual and devoid of opinions. What I find a problem with is how the AUEC is positioning itself as a factual, neutral body that leaves persuasion to the students involved in politics. That is simply untrue. The very fact that the AUEC actively partook in the substantive discussions around the referendum establishes that the AUEC did not play a neutral role. Ideally, it is the role of elected representatives to explain the need for reform while the AUEC should only concern itself with procedural matters including, but not limited to, the dissemination of facts and establishing the procedure for reform. Of course, this is not to negate the few instances where AUEC’s active involvement in student politics proved beneficial, however it sets a poor precedent for future election commissions. It is a slippery slope the AUEC should actively avoid as the question of beneficial or disastrous involvement can only be settled post-involvement.
This brings me to the main contention I have with the role of the AUEC as mandated by the Constitution. By giving it the power to propose reforms and conduct referendums betrays the solely procedural role it should play in campus politics. How can the AUEC decide what electoral system is suitable for campus politics as that forces it to take a stance that is inherently political in nature? That defeats the purpose of having a nonpartisan election commission. Besides affecting the AUEC’s neutrality, the current procedure also pushes it down a slippery slope where the line between partisanship and neutrality remains blurred. The HoR, on the other hand, theoretically has the mandate to lead substantive conversations on the electoral system. The onus of ideating and taking the initiative should only fall on elected representatives. The job of the AUEC is to merely facilitate the referendum and to ensure that all the facts pertaining to it are made available to the student body. This does not mean that the House should be barred from consulting with the AUEC, rather it means that the AUEC simply cannot assume an active role.
A further problem with the status quo is the amendment passed in late 2021 that changed the process of the Chief Election Officer’s appointment. Earlier, when the President of the House and the LO led the appointment process, we could hold our elected representatives responsible for the actions of the CEO. Now, the process is entirely bureaucratic. The incumbent CEO, along with their Election Commissioners, can appoint the succeeding CEO. This is a strange procedure as the House still reserves the right to impeach the CEO. How can the House have the right to impeach but not the right to appoint? Since impeachment is not a light affair, shouldn’t we ensure from the very beginning that the CEO carries the consent of the House? Besides, the appointment of the CEO cannot be entirely divorced from other political institutions on campus. While the independence of the election commission is a novel desire, we must also acknowledge the risk in making the AUEC completely independent, thus impossible to hold accountable. It is important to revisit this amendment as it confuses the mandate of the AUEC vis-à-vis the House.
Speaking of accountability, recent events have reiterated the importance of the House in taking measures to keep the AUEC in check. Given that the AUEC made a grave error in announcing the election of three candidates contesting the by-elections as they did not cross the reduced Independent EQ, the need for an election audit becomes all the more necessary. One way in which the House could have detected the error was by forming a NOTA Committee as required by the Election Code. Their inability to do so compromised the legitimacy of the House. To prevent such situations in the future, the House should constitute a committee of representatives and special members from the student body to audit the entire election process each time an election concludes. The mixed nature of this committee would make it impossible for any coverup and ensure that mistakes are spotted before it’s too late. Not only would this maintain the legitimacy of the elections, it would also restore the student body’s faith in the entire system.
It is of the utmost importance in maintaining the independence of the AUEC, but it is equally important to limit its mandate to purely procedural affairs. Perhaps we could provide for exceptions in case the House is incapacitated but such measures should be temporary and properly outlined. Not only does the current relationship between the House and the AUEC compromise the latter’s neutrality and the scope for accountability, it also gives candidates a convenient way out of discussing electoral reforms. More than once have I heard candidates say that the House cannot decide the fate of the current electoral system as that is the AUEC’s mandate. If we are to emerge out of the crisis the House has found itself in, the relationship between the House and the AUEC must be revisited and redefined.