Methodology Over Ideology: Can Tarz Renew Ashokan Politics?
Written by Arya Shukla (UG 23) and Ananya Gupta (UG 22)
When the pandemic set in and students deserted the campus en masse, reports began surfacing about contractual workers being laid off and, in some cases, coerced to resign. The Student Government mobilised for their cause, raised an amount of money that is bigger than its annual budget, and effectively got the resignations reversed. However, for the founders of Tarz, this was an example of all that is wrong with our student politics.
Tarz said that the information was scanty, “coming out in chunks and pieces” in emails “directed to a certain outcome” which they claim prevented students from forming their own opinions on “the course of action.” This situation unfolded, to them, in “not the most coherent way” due to a “lack of information” and the SG subsequently “motivating students” to send emails to the administration demanding that the resignations be revoked. Herein lies their point of disagreement with Ashokan politics – its method, its manner, its tarz.
On 24th November, Ashokan politics met its newest member, Tarz, founded by ex-Chief Election Officer Amola Mehta, ex-AUEC member Maanya Saran, and erstwhile member of Prakrit Dhrupad Damani. The party was formed as a reaction to the withering opposition in an electoral field that is increasingly dominated by Prakrit after the exit of Moksh. In a couple of interviews with the Edict, the founders of Ashoka’s newest party spoke about how they “want to offer the student body an alternate manner in which student politics operates.”
At the outset, it is a promising idea and the new faces and fresh impetus they bring has the potential to invigorate Ashokan politics and capture the attention of a student body suffering from ‘Prakrit fatigue’. The party has come out and explicitly decried the current political landscape. Their stance on the approach taken by the current SG is that there is a reactionary influx of sentimental conduct that takes away from their efficiency. They aspire to bring about changes through a more negotiation-based approach, stating that protests should be a last resort and not the consequence of emotions.
A unique characteristic of Tarz is the party organisation, which they explicitly state as being hierarchical. The structure follows a meritocratic logic of rewarding one’s “organised and dedicated work ethic” with “upward mobility” and creates an internal marketplace of ideas amongst its members. According to the founders, this counters any “biased hierarchy that might develop naturally” and allows party members to rise up the ladder without having to “pander to any one of our opinions.”
In the party, “consensus is not mandated but discussion and convincing is necessary,” with a founding member adding that “you should not agree with me just because I’m senior or higher up in the party, you should agree with me because you agree with me.” This feature of the party is intended to promote individuality and prevent any implicit favouritism from “compromising on internal democracy,” even if it is for the sake of “a united front.” By doing so, they believe they would be adapting to the “new electoral circumstance” of the modified Swiss PR system.
Tarz’s founders said that they do not have a hierarchy of issues or a single-issue agenda, averring that not every party member is expected to be “gung-ho” about all issues. At the same time, they posit that “some issues take natural precedence over others”, which is reflected by their criticism of the Adhoka protests, in which, they insist, cross-access became the focal point, overshadowing vital issues like trans-friendly housing.
Tarz believes that the party’s manifesto is meant to reflect the “one thing we all have in common which is that we are in agreement with certain ethical principles and ethos.” No specificity was added regarding the contents of their manifesto, and the party did not proceed to clarify beyond “we are still in ideation.” This use of their fledgling “just four weeks old” status (at the time of the interview) was distinctive as a crutch to slide by certain irregularities. In their prefatory email, they condemned the “lack of ideological plurality” in student politics, but later described themselves as espousing the same “progressive left leanings” that are the mainstay of Ashoka’s existing parties. They stated that “we are possibly going to be passionate about similar things to what most of Ashoka cares about” and therefore cannot “depend on an ideology in the conventional sense to be our differentiating factor.” They don’t think that “political parties are going to represent other political leanings,” especially “on a campus which has a decently homogenous population.” The justification of their similarity in ideology to pre-existing parties felt peculiar, as they claimed that “differences come down to things like execution, like approaches to solution and processes.”
Amongst these broad statements about the political leanings of the Ashokan student body, one can detect their underlying cynicism—the idea of a permanently alienated electorate, unchanged by larger political currents. But as Tarz would have it, does the Ashokan political system have no more space for ideological imagination? Perhaps not. There are a lot of vital issues that get eclipsed in party manifestos. Ashoka is yet to see, for instance, its first green party that wants to make the campus carbon-neutral, or an Ambedkarite party that aims to bring caste-based reservation into the admissions process. There are these and countless other issues which have not come to the foyer yet.
The vocabulary used by the founders in describing the Tarz method — professionalism, efficiency, communication channels, workable pathways — sounds corporatised and lacking in political pulse. Their stance on a myriad of issues appear to be reactions to what political actors before them have said and done. The party as a whole does not claim allegiance to any particular issue, but whatever it does take up, it aims to execute in moderation, level headedly, and without jumping to radical actions — an approach that, funnily enough, appears quite neoliberal or even somewhat conservative, depending on where one stands.
Speaking about the conduct of political parties in the previous election cycle, Tarz accuses those in office of “resorting to aggressive or overly defensive tactics” in the face of criticism. According to them, the conduct of office bearers is integral to the objectives they fulfil during their tenure. They raised issues of presentation and optics, saying that their disagreement stemmed from how you would be boxed as pro-administration “if you didn’t agree with what a particular party thought or believed the right course of action was vis-a-vis the admin.” While such dichotomies being drawn was not ideal in the first place, the fact that “there was no opposition to them and the opposition could not overcome this particular accusation” was far odder to them.
Consistent with their emails, they elaborated their stance on unionisation, reiterating how “we don’t think it achieves the outcome it sets out to achieve and secondly we think it achieves things that it probably shouldn’t be achieving, which is antagonising the admin.” This stance is predicated upon their understanding of the administration as “not democratically accountable to the student body.” They claim that despite their intensive research, they found Prakrit lacking the “logistical planning” to “execute unionisation”. They raised concerns about whether unionisation is “sanctioned by the admin”, stating that “an entire election has been fought on this” but “since then nothing has happened”.
However, this critique of theirs was bereft of any commitment to a viable system of demanding accountability from the administration in situations where the SG cannot even make it to the negotiating table. This ambiguity allows them to prevent any ruffled feathers as well as skirt inquiry on the Tarz method of “engaging effectively” through more “persistent negotiation.” Their negotiating spirit, which they say is an improved and more placatory method compared to protesting, ignores the political construction of a protest. Protests go beyond simply the act of mobilisation; they educate protestors on their rights and demands while also acting as a way to bargain with the body that is being protested against.
Ashokan politics is in the midst of its seventh cycle – with the election season having just commenced. Dhamma and Prakrit seem to be the two political parties that have stood the test of time and Ashoka’s student body through these years. While both parties have had ebbs and flows in their popularity, their strong rooted ideologies and distinctive identities have cemented them with some permanency in the political scene at the university.
For an atmosphere structured by a small group of political actors and an overwhelming portion of students leaning towards political apathy, the addition of a new political party is a welcome sign. The advent of new players and newer ideas stirs the student politics scene, especially in light of the collapse of Moksh. Tarz faces criticism for being reactionary, but they reconcile the acknowledgement of the same by saying “the level on which we are reactionary is that we are not content with the politics at Ashoka.” It brings diversity in issues and dialogue just by virtue of being actively involved in student politics. It has the potential to infuse competition in our political landscape.
Tarz believes that on “a college campus in the middle of Sonipat which has a lot of privileged individuals coming to it,” there exists broad-based consensus over ideologies and belief systems. But various incidents, like the doxxing on the UG Facebook group last September, have shown that Ashoka’s political culture is not only ideologically diverse, but at times irreconcilably so. As such, parties have appealed to students over time by engaging with stakeholders other than just the undergraduate electorate and rooting themselves beyond the ecosystem on campus, especially with semesters being conducted online.
Which leads one to wonder, how does Tarz plan on preventing internal party discussions from devolving into a battle of wills? The party must decide to foster common interests and outcomes over simply being “a collective of individuals” who want to implement changes through a different method. It needs to clearly tell the student body what is to be expected from them. While they do bring something new to the table and bolster a political system struggling in the face of an apathetic atmosphere, how successful and sustainable their party is will depend on the values and principles shared by all its party members. They ask, “what does it tell us if all we can do is fight?” The answer is in what we choose to fight for.