New Constitution should create Cabinet autonomy and address student apathy: Ministers
By Anushree Pratap, UG '23
In a series of Cabinet interviews conducted by The Edict from 9th June to 21st June, Ministers of the Student Government (SG) and their Deputies of the year 2021-22 share what their expectations are from the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) and the changes they want in the Constitution.
The case for Cabinet autonomy from the HoR
Rochan Mohapatra, Cultural Minister 2022-23 and current member of the HoR says that he looks forward to the CDC clarifying the role of the House of Representatives (HoR) and ministers. He says “it's very vague – the president, Leader of Opposition and the House members – it says it's to hold accountable, but how to hold accountable? Is it a meeting? Is it bashing the minister? Or is it a proper impeachment procedure?”
Ananya Gupta, Campus Life Minister (September 2021-May 2022) explains the reason for HoR-Cabinet tussles, “most of the work that the SG has to do, I believe, is executive in nature, which is why there was this whole tussle also in the beginning between HoR and ministries, mandates, etc. - where you had to delineate what the HoR is doing and what the ministry is doing”. She explains that the work previously done collaboratively is now carried out by ministries due to the very few numbers remaining in the HoR.
Bhaavya Gupta, Cultural Minister 2021-22 says that this can be reflected in the Constitution, “I don't know if this is the correct word, but the extent of their [Cabinet] power can be enhanced, because even when the SG was down, and even now it's down to three to five members, everything that needs to be done is still being done by the ministries.”
Advaith Jayakumar, Campus Life Minister (February 2021-September 2021) and Deputy Minister (September 2021-May 2022) says that he would also like the new Constitution to not just have more ministerial autonomy but also recognize the fact that ministries do a lot.
Akhil Bhardwaj, Finance Minister 2021-22, says about the power distribution, “historically, it's been more HoR concentrated – the power, the inputs, all of that – and the Cabinet has just worked according to the Constitution”.
Yasashvi Paarakh, Minister of Academic Affairs (MAA) and member of the CDC says that the reason she joined the committee was to ensure that ministerial autonomy is formalized. She says, “it shouldn’t be at the whim of the President like, ‘this looks like something that’s going to get the House of Representatives popularity points, let’s work on this issue,’ because that’s what happens right now in my opinion”. She cites MAA’s initiative of extending the academic Pass/Fail mechanism as an issue that the House did not actively help with.
She continues, “the HoR is literally doing whatever they feel like doing. While they do take care of all the residual tasks which the Ministries don’t currently do, and emergency situations, and the email thing, apart from that, they are free to do whatever they want to. So I feel if we can nearly chart out, not an exhaustive, but a very detailed list of tasks for them in their mandate, they will have enough to do so that they can stop interfering in ministerial matters”. For collaborative work between ministries and the HoR, she believes there should be a formal structure with a fixed number of committee members where everyone has voting rights.
Manasi Narula, Environment Minister and CDC member, agrees that cabinet autonomy and separation from house bias is something she is looking forward to. She further points out that the HoR does not view all ministries at par.
She says, “the Budget discussion meetings in early 2021 made it quite clear that the House has opinions about which Ministries are important and unimportant and hence deserve more or less money. The Environment Ministry in particular doesn’t seem to be considered very important, as an SG body, and as an institution in itself, because our work is very technical and over the past term has been somewhat admin-oriented”.
Abhiir Bhalla, Deputy Environment Minister adds, “just like CulMin [Cultural Ministry] is very hot when it's time for a dance or something, the Environment Ministry needs to be hot for stuff like waste segregation, mess coupons, etc. The SG or whatever comes out of this Constitution business that is going on needs to be structured in a way that all ministries are put at par.”
He believes the Environment Ministry is also neglected in terms of consistent adequate budgetary allocations.
Formal structures for uncertain times: Fundraisers and NOTA elections
During the pandemic, the Student Government and Finance Ministry supported students by having fundraisers when reached out to in times of financial need.
Akhil says that these fundraisers bring the community closer and are becoming more recurring. In terms of how the Constitution can recognize them, he says “something permanent, regarding fundraisers and bank accounts, and a more streamlined process. Till now, for keeping records of fundraisers, a new Excel sheet is created for each fundraiser. Then it isn't very centralized, and because HoR members are mostly approached and other members of the SG provide their bank accounts, the Finance Ministry cannot aggregate all the fundraiser data in one place”.
Vrinda Bhardwaj, Finance Minister 2022-23 agrees that Constitutional recognition of the fundraisers would be helpful. She clarifies that fundraisers are not part of the Finance Ministry’s mandate but something they organize when required by the student body. Akhil adds that not mandating the fundraisers allows students to use routes and PoCs they are comfortable with.
He says that formal recognition would require the ambit of the Finance Ministry’s duties to be expanded in the new Constitution. It should be noted that the Finance Ministry is one of the 2 ministries, along with the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs, that has not been included in the new Draft Constitution shared by the CDC on 21st July. They are being replaced by a Treasurer and a Public Relation Office respectively.
Ananya brings up the fact that while students who care about student politics and issues at large or have rage against the admin have recessed, executive tasks still need to be performed such as dining, residence policies, and transport which are essential parts of students’ experience at Ashoka.
Events and new initiatives by ministries have decreased over the past year but logistical tasks have reportedly continued and adapted to new situations.
The NOTA elections posed setbacks to SG work as well. Vrinda says that the current budget being used by ministries is that of the previous year’s. She believes the Constitution should include a rough plan of action for such exceptional circumstances.
Advaith says that a lot of the negotiating time with the admin has been lost. He says, “it’s a very slippery slope the CDC is running because a lot of the autonomy that we did have has been taken away by Geo [Manager, Office of Student Affairs (OSA)] and the OSA. This is very frustrating because that was something that we kept fighting for”.
He explains how, at the start of their term, Ananya and he aimed to bring cross access to its original form where it was allowed for the entire weekend with no timing restrictions. He says, “now, we're not even in a place to start that conversation, sadly. Those sorts of projects got pushed back a lot.”
Contrary to other Cabinet members, Bhaavya says, “I think that it is time that we very actively involve the admin in the Constitution drafting, specifically because I have seen the admin and the Student Government in general, including the ministries, are constantly at loggerheads. And I think it has a lot to do with what we think is our jurisdiction and what they think is our jurisdiction and everybody crossing lines constantly.” She adds that the CDC will probably not take this route.
The Constitution’s role in mobilizing the student body
Harsh Gupta, Minister of Parliamentary Affairs and CDC member says, “I’m hoping the CDC’s work can amend the SG’s structure to make it more accessible to the student body and to allow more students to participate without having to enter student politics. We should also look at other cohorts for more complete participation of the student body. However, a new constitution cannot resolve the core issue of student apathy. This can only be solved with ground-level mobilization”.
Both Harsh and Bhaavya believe that the status quo of student apathy may change with new incoming batches.
Yasashvi believes that after the structural issues of the SG are addressed by the CDC, the SG will be able to address student issues better which will help deal with student apathy. She adds that the Constitution is not a student-facing issue in the short-term.
Pankhudi Narayan, the SG-Point of Contact for Ministry of Community Well-Being says, “I hope that it [the new Constitution] helps create some sort of a spark at least, because right now the way that the Constitution is, it’s more hindering the process of being able to do work than actually allowing the work to be done”.
She says that every time the SG has had open meetings, very few people show up. She is hopeful about the CDC’s work aiding the process of student mobilization. So far, the CDC has had one open meeting on 21st July where the turnout of the student body, excluding CDC members, was 14 people.
While student mobilization has not been with the SG, it has continued in different ways. Citing the example of the workers’ welfare movement, Ananya says, “earlier, we used to see change in Ashoka through the canon of SG and student politics and ministries. But now it's expanding beyond. So I think that's a good thing.”