Cam‘pain’ing In A Pandemic – Challenges of an Online Election
Updated: Apr 25, 2021
Published on January 11, 2021
*The following is an Opinions article.*
By Akanksha Mishra (UG22)
As the ‘new’ normal casts its shadow upon Ashoka and we move into a second consecutive semester online, we’re faced with newer challenges. The Spring 2021 semester starts with the elections to the 7th House of Representatives. The 6th House, which went through a largely online term, is all set to hand over the reins of power to a newly-elected House on 13th February 2021. The Election Commission, led by Abhay Hari, has already come up with an election timeline and different parties are gearing up for what promises to be a competitive election season. This is the first time in the history of Ashoka University that not just the voting, but the entire campaigning period is going to be online.
The style of campaigning, the issues over which the election will be fought, the voter turnout – all of these pose potential problems. The virtual nature of campaigning indicates that social media platforms such as the Facebook group, Instagram and Whatsapp will be the top forums for party campaigning and voter mobilisation. While online elections were perhaps inevitable, they pose various challenges. These include information access, exclusivity of the purely online election period, the polarised nature of social media debate, and the overall lack of student engagement in a global pandemic.
Over the last few years, Ashokan politics has increasingly gained ground with some political parties solidifying their presence in the arena year after year, with a fair share of independent candidates joining in. While complaints about the too similar ideologies of different parties still make the rounds, each party also ensures its campaign is unique, largely depending on the personalities of its members. In previous seasons, a large part of the campaign was the overwhelming physical atmosphere of elections themselves – be it through campaign paraphernalia, AUEC events at the mess lawns, or even interactions with over-enthusiastic candidates in the halls of AC02. This levelled opportunity as well as access for everyone to participate in the elections. A huge shortcoming of having to shift the entire campaigning process online is the deficiency of this equal access. No matter how easy the process is made, access to information and events regarding the elections will always fall short of including certain sections of students.
Regular internet access and presence on social media is the basic necessity to be able to participate in the campaigns, which is something some students cannot afford at ease. Considering the varying situations in the homes of different students, some of them might not be able to afford the time to click on a link and join an hour-long debate between the candidates. This election and its means are bound to marginalise a section of students from being able to effectively participate in an event that affects them.
It is presumptuous to believe that the candidates would willingly disregard this section of the student populace, which is why the scope for more inclusive forms of campaigning still exists. Both the parties and the AUEC could work towards greater inclusivity in election campaigning and information dissemination this season – instead of limiting voter engagement to simply attending meetings and events, there could be a push for passive forms of content production like videos, emails, and recordings of events on Zoom.
However, inclusivity is not the only problem that virtual campaigning poses. Election season also entails political discussion and debate among students, especially in recent years, as campus parties have begun responding vocally to national political issues. While the ideal is an open, interactive, and respectful mode of discourse, that is rarely the case within Ashoka circles, especially on social media. The Undergraduates Facebook group has been known to often get heated during political discussions of issues related to the campus itself, as well as to larger national politics. If discourse surrounding the election issues takes place primarily on the group, it could prove to be a challenge to moderate debates.
The doxxing incident regarding the Undergraduates group is also fresh in the minds of many students, and tougher moderation is the need of the hour to maintain the security of the group as well as the participants. Aside from moderation, the candidates should also keep in mind the polarising nature of social media while engaging with each other as well as other students. There should also be a concerted effort to use the medium of campus publications such as the Edict, and AUEC-moderated events that facilitate informed and respectful discussions.
Student engagement itself is in a precarious position this semester, courtesy of the pandemic-induced online learning. The Ashokan experience has been reduced to Zoom links and small squares on computer screens. Physical campus presence not only provided equal campaigning access to all students but also enhanced the electoral atmosphere of the campus. Online classes have led to the dilution of both student learning, as well as enthusiastic student participation. Participation and engagement in events outside of classes seem to be on the low, mainly because of the disconnect that students feel with the campus, with the larger college atmosphere, as well as with each other. It might be a difficult task for the candidates and the AUEC to increase turnout at various election events due to this disconnect, or purely due to student ignorance.
In the face of the infamous Ashokan ‘apathy’, it will be interesting to observe how voter engagement is increased. Focusing on issue-based campaigning rather than banking on the personality of popular candidates could be one strategy. Students, especially first years, could be encouraged to engage with the candidates if the campaigning is done based on different issues that plague (pun intended) students in college. Other ways include running campaigns keeping in mind the short attention spans and busy schedules of college students.
Regardless of the challenges, this election season could face, it still promises to be interesting. The exit of Moksh and the entry of the new party Tarz has generated a lot of buzz, as has the question of whether Prakrit will maintain its 3-year winning streak. The new Election Commission seems to have risen to the occasion, as we look forward to a competitive, engaging and fruitful election season.