Is the new Draft Constitution a product of the past or future?
By Ruhaan Shah (UG'23)
The Student Government has suffered from its own glut of troubles for over two years now. The Sixth House was forced to tackle workers' concerns and a Facebook disaster, all the while relegated to a novel, unfamiliar space online. And the Seventh House – of which I was a part – composed its own epitaph by dissolving the Student Government for the first time after being engulfed by a constant stream of crises. Since then, elections have come and gone but nothing substantive has stayed. In an unfortunate but predictable political limbo, it is fair to assume that a carte blanche was the only way to proceed. That’s what the Constitution Drafting Committee is for. The Student Government, after promising reparation, is now back to the coveted drawing board after eight years, hoping to start anew. But is the newly drafted Constitution making use of this blank slate? Is it experimental enough?
The Draft Constitution does tinker with new ideas. It has introduced a new figurehead – a Prime Minister – to the matrix. The Prime Minister is meant to look after the Cabinet of the Student Government, a subsidiary known to have a fractured relationship with the House. During my term in the Seventh Student Government, the House often encroached on other ministries by stepping into their shoes as and when a crisis demanded. In Spring 2021, the Ministry of Academic Affairs resolutely pushed for greater academic accommodations as the pandemic stretched everyone’s resources thin. To the Ministry’s chagrin, the House, too, joined this initiative. As most Representatives lacked the experience and tact needed to negotiate with the OAA, its Dean and Associate Dean, undue burden fell onto the Ministry’s shoulders amidst an already tiresome semester. This was a recurring phenomenon, for which the House was justly criticised. By introducing a Prime Minister – a position wholly divorced from the House apart from its appointment and supervision – the Draft Constitution has separated the two branches of the Student Government that required individual autonomy.
However, the Prime Minister is simply an extension of the bygone President, further elongating a broken chain of command. Earlier, the President nominated Ministers and held the Cabinet together; now, it is the Prime Minister. This indicates a lack of political creativity within the Constitution. It is a sign of political paralysis veiled by a seeming nod to political progress.
For instance, none of the candidates are elected into further positions of power by the students, including the President, Leader of Opposition, and Prime Minister. Only the elected Representatives determine this. Since the last standing Student Government was dismantled due to accusations of abuse of power, not letting the electorate decide who their primary representative will be – the President, in this case – seems inward-looking. Historically, the President has assumed the position of a spokesperson, not because they are leading the Student Government but because they are meant to be reflective of what a majority of the students want. For instance, during the Fifth House, former President Deep Vakil represented the students on national television during the anti-CAA protests. In the Sixth House, former President Priavi Joshi predominantly addressed the student body after a few of them were doxxed on the Undergraduate Facebook Group. Then, it would only be fair for this process to be democratised, which the Draft Constitution seems to be unperturbed about.
Interestingly, though, this Student Government will be more democratic than it ever was. The floor test – which allows the Leader of Opposition to assess whether the President still holds majority support – is a clever addition to the Constitution. The Prime Minister, too, embodies a quasi-democratic ideal as they fortify the Cabinet’s independence now. But a democratic Student Government does not necessarily imply a democratic electorate. The students continue to remain fundamentally powerless. The Draft Constitution only allows them to raise petitions and ballot measures. These provisions are relics of an enterprising past. Following and including the Seventh House, the Election Commission has time and again failed to include ballot measures on their portals that allow the electorate to vote on directives that students present to the House. Even petitions remain nowhere to be used. Arguably, this Draft Constitution leaves the electorate worse off.
In the previous Constitution, a petition required 50 votes for it to be deemed actionable. The threshold, now, is 100 votes. It is only fair to increase this margin as the volume of students has increased ever since the old threshold was decided. However, the House continues to have 15 Representatives only. Since the whopping Undergraduate Batch of 2022, every House sworn into the Student Government has been perpetually overworked due to the debilitating lack of personnel. Despite the dynamism of the student population, the number of Representatives continues to remain static.
The Draft Constitution is not the problem, however; it is the Drafting Committee’s parochiality. The Committee has only refurbished the old Constitution by simplifying a tortuous document, by making its hieroglyphics readable. Rather than using that Constitution as a template, the Committee should have made full use of the blank slate that they were presented. Rather than modifying a pre-existing and unrepresentative structure, the Committee should have experimented with an altogether new one. For example, there is no mention of a Right to Recall. Even a provision to introduce referendums remains glaringly absent. The Student Government’s financial structure continues to stay in the hands of an oppressive OSA. And the Committee seems to have lost complete hope in the idea of a Student Union. Then, is the Constitution Drafting Committee just a glorified moniker for a Constitution Amendment Committee?
Perhaps, the Constitution Drafting Committee was never presented with a blank slate in the first place. Perhaps, the issue is not the Committee’s aversion to experiment but the limiting nature of their prior experience. However, just as this blank slate implies a political vacuum, experimentation implies the foregoing of past experience. It is no one’s fault but also everyone’s fault. Maybe, the only way to resolve this paradox is to stop trying to renovate the existing structure, and rather, build one bottom-up.
Ruhaan Shah was a member of the Seventh House of Representatives from Tarz and also served as the President of the Student Government.