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Formerly a Prakrit Candidate, Abhay Hari to Lead AUEC with a Close Eye for Optics

On 21st November, it was announced that Abhay Hari will be our next Chief Election Officer, and the Edict’s co-editor-in-chief Aritro Sarkar sat down to interview him on 27th November. Apart from his own, Aritro also asked questions that were submitted by members of the Edict’s newest division: the Student Politics Newsdesk. Transcribed below are excerpts of select portions of the interview, in which Abhay reflects upon the weight of his Prakrit past, surveys the challenge of conducting elections in the tumultuous present, and proposes that the Tarz precedent must not repeat in the future. Listen to the complete interview on Radio Edict.

Aritro Sarkar (AS): This is, in some ways, a return to Ashokan politics for you. You contested the last election with Prakrit, and now you are Chief Election Officer. Do you at all feel under pressure, and do you feel more conscious as a former Prakrit member from your first year, to be more actively neutral?

Abhay Hari (AH): Yeah, absolutely, I feel it’s a conversation that will be had. I was a candidate on Prakrit’s list and I have very fond memories of Prakrit. People will talk regardless of what I want them to do because I do have obvious connections to Prakrit, which were severed a long time ago, but I still do. In the back of my mind, while I may have complete neutrality, the optics of it can be questioned. However, I will try my best — that’s all I can say — I will try my best for it to optically also reflect that I am neutral and do not show any kind of bias (which I know I won’t). Optically, people will ask questions, and I think I am well prepared to answer them.

AS: Last two elections, there was record-breaking turnout. Under Shashank Mattoo, the EC introduced online voting, touching 72% turnout. Under Amola Mehta, they made the voting period two days long, and there was a turnout of 83%. Do you have a particular number that you will be aiming for?

AH: I think even matching that number would be a great achievement and anything better will obviously be great. We’re also facing an uncertain election cycle because as of yet it’s not confirmed whether it’s going to be online or offline and as such, I can possibly give a better answer to you a month or two later. Obviously I would have to plan for it being online, and while the drawbacks are obvious, I feel there actually might be a better turnout just in case it is online. Since the bulk of the Ashoka population is now concentrated in the first and second batches and it’s way more skewed than the last election, if we can get those events right and if we get the conversations about the actual problems started, with an extension of the voting period to possibly three days, we might be able to get a good turnout and that’s the hope.

AS: As we inch closer to the election, the chances of a physically reopened campus look uncertain. What is your plan for conducting an election in what could probably be another online semester or maybe a semester where people are back on campus in cohorts but a bulk of their activities remain online?

AH: We need to start highlighting the individuality of the candidates, which is something I felt was not done last election. For example, if you know a big player, you are very likely to vote for another person in their specific party. And a big problem, although we switched to the Modified Swiss PR last year, was that people did not vote for the independents as much* and the independents didn’t get in because of the EQ constraints which is not something that the AUEC thought of until very late. With the thing being online, we might have to start highlighting the individuality of the candidates, and I’ve thought of ideas such as having specific content for each candidate to highlight why people should vote for them, and a specific kind of event or medium to address what list votes are. Considering the time this is about to take, we might be in for one of the longest campaigning periods ever, if not a

prolonged election.

*Fact Check: Harshit and Shwetha, the two independents who are a part of the current House, received the 3rd and 5th highest number of individual votes, respectively.

AS: Are you open to seriously considering the question of delaying the election, or would you object to a move by the current House to extend its term beyond one year — in defiance of the constitution* but, given the circumstances, probably a conversation that could pick up?

*Clarification: There exists a one-time provision in the Constitution that the current House of Representatives may exercise to extend its term upto 14th March 2021, in order to sync the SG budget cycle with the administration’s financial year (Art. V, Sec. 7.1 and 9.1).

AH: Those decisions will have to be closer to Election Day or before the AUEC declares the campaign period open, so I don’t think I can comment on that yet. If the situation is so, then it can surely be discussed and I am not vehemently opposed to it. Again, we can see when the time comes.

AS: The last election was the first one we had in the voting system selected by voters in the 2019 referendum. But despite the lower electoral quotient for independent candidates*, we did not see a single independent candidate in the House until LIBERANDU resigned. Harshit and Shweta, who had received the third and fifth highest number of individual votes, were the 17th and 18th members of the House respectively. Do you see that as a problem? If yes, what do you think is the remedy? Do you think, in retrospect, switching the election systems was a mistake?

*For Context: The electoral quotient or EQ is the threshold of votes required by a candidate to win one seat and in our current voting system, it is calculated differently for parties and independents. For parties, EQ is calculated as Total Votes Cast divided by 15, the number of seats. For independents, EQ is calculated as Total Votes Cast minus List Votes, divided by 15. List votes are votes cast in favor of a party-as-a-whole, rather than for any individual candidate. Read more in this guide by the Edict.

AH: No, I don’t think that the election system itself was the problem, but rather how the election system was explained. People didn’t realise what the value of the list vote would be. From my Prakrit perspective, I remember, as a very distinct strategy, we did not try to go for individuals, we tried to advocate for the list vote to Prakrit, which is why Prakrit received so many seats. There are multiple reasons: first, they advocated for all the list votes straight; second, Moksh only put up 7 members and Dhamma’s number was also around 7. So when Harshit and Shweta contested, even though they received such a high number of individual votes, the list vote difference in Moksh, Dhamma, and especially Prakrit offset the EQ so much, the independents were cast aside. That sounds a little technical, which is why there needs to be special emphasis and information dispersed upon what a list vote means.

I want this election not to be about 4 people you like and then voting for others, I want it to be every single candidate getting in on their own merit and not off the back of the reputation of members in their party. That will work once we get the list vote dilemma sorted amongst the Ashoka student body and amongst the political parties themselves. I want to encourage them to put their ideologies out there so that when someone decides to give that big list vote to a certain party, they are doing it because they believe in the working of the party and not because of three people they like in that party. That will go a long way in securing the independents some seats, because the system works.*

*Read More: An opinion piece in the Edict about the modified Swiss PR system shortchanging independents with a poor electoral outcome, due to shortfalls in campaigning by political parties. 

AS: There is a worrisome trend that is emerging: in 2018, there was an ex-member of Prakrit who was a sitting elected representative when they joined the AUEC; in 2019, there was an ex-member of Dhamma and an HOD in a ministry who joined the AUEC; and obviously you’ve had a stint with Prakrit last election and now you are a part of the AUEC. Is there a growing politicisation of the AUEC, and can it be avoided at all? Do you think there is a dilution in the non-partisan nature of the institution that you are a part of?

AH: One of the most important advice that Amola, my predecessor, gave me was the optics of it, so from an optics perspective, it does seem very diluted. If I am an ex-Prakrit member and suddenly I am the head of the EC and then, if I appoint another person that happens to be from Prakrit say, there are going to be questions asked.* Do I think this is a dilution problem? Not as much, and the reason for this is, I feel that the political actors in Ashoka are more or less the same crowd right now, which touches on the problem of apathy. If we somehow are able to tackle that apathy or get a good crack at it, more people who are not at all involved in politics might be coming up as options for the AUEC to consider. Only a certain amount of people are interested enough in politics to take up such a job**, so until that is solved, optically, the dilution problem will still remain, in my opinion.

For Context: *Three days after this interview, Abhay announced the two other members of the AUEC. One of them, Samridhi Hooda, is a former member of Prakrit and before that, Moksh. **A fifth of those who applied for the two positions had some prior partisan affiliation.

AS: Conversely, Tarz is headed by three people, one of whom is Amola Mehta. Her term just ended as Chief Election Officer and within a week, she’s part of a new political party, and Maanya also is somebody who has held public office with AUEC and is now another face at Tarz. How do you think this formation of Tarz as a political party with two erstwhile faces of the AUEC affects this conversation around the dilution of the AUEC’s non-partisanship?

AH: Optically — I’m not going to lie — it doesn’t look great, because there were a lot of questions that I also got about whether Amola’s term had ended and how long was the question of forming a party going on, but those are not for me to answer. The problem arises when you use the AUEC as a political platform or your own stepping stone onto something else — which I dont think Amola or Maanya have done in this case. Once their connection to AUEC has ended, they are again students of the Ashoka body. And I would like to put this as a hypothetical out there: if you have been part of the AUEC and you feel that there is a certain issue that’s being dealt with, if at all, in a manner which is wrong, what do you do about it? Do you not react, do you react? In that case, what Tarz has done is they’ve chosen to react to the issues they felt developed during the term and they decided to form a party right after. I’m all for it, the more the parties that come up, the greater the competition, and that’s always good for a House. Optically, it’s not a great sight but I don’t see it being that big of an issue as long as they’re careful to make clear that it’s not something that went on during their time in office — which I don’t think did at all.

AS: Do you think the fact that members of the AUEC have just started a political party within days of their term ending sets a bad precedent? Do you think it is a violation of a convention and to that end, do you plan on introducing any changes to the Election Code or work with the House to amend the Constitution to mitigate or alleviate such circumstances if they do arise in the future?

AH: Yeah, I think it does set a bad precedent, because, while I do not doubt the former members of the AUEC and their integrity, I’m not the only one with an opinion. Dealing with the dilution problem also — I want to discuss this after the appointment of the election commissioners as well — I feel that there needs to be some sort of a gap, between people being part of a party or the AUEC and then coming up with another political party, so that there is no horse-trading or no sort of favours which are being exchanged. For example, I quit Prakrit in March and then applied to be Election Commissioner after a good gap of 6 months. If someone is suddenly part of the House or a party and the next day they’re part of the AUEC and then after the AUEC they’re part of another party right after that, I really don’t think it’s the right way to go. If you’re going to be applying to the AUEC, you should be set on the AUEC and then maintain that non-partisan aspect to it. Optics are the most important part of the AUEC, because if there are any kind of questions about the integrity of the AUEC, it defeats the whole purpose of the elections.

— Reporting and transcription contributed by Riddhi Verma, Aggam Walia, and Deep Vakil —

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