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NOTA-GATE: The Biggest Election Blunder at Ashoka

By Riddhi Verma and Aggam Walia

An Edict investigation into the recent by-elections that took place on the 8th and 9th of October 2021 revealed that three of the six candidates (namely: Nipun Jain, Jai Desai and Shreya Jain) that entered the House did not have the electoral numbers to do so, and the remaining three (Neha Sheik, Karan Lobana, Bhavye Jain) entered on dubious terms. Following a question posed by a respondent on The Edict’s Instagram story yesterday, the Politics Newsdesk was unable to gauge how such a high percentage of NOTA votes in the by-election allowed all 6 running candidates to enter the House.

The Election Code has a procedure set in place in case NOTA gets at least one seat in the general elections: if NOTA gets between 5-8 of the total 15 seats, the Ashoka University Election Commission (AUEC) is required to conduct a re-election for that number of seats. In terms of percentage, this is between 33.3% to 53.3% of the total seats being contested. The rationale for not declaring the entire election null and void is that the House would have at least 8 members, enough for a majority. In the by-elections however, NOTA received 3 of the 6 seats, that is 50%. The outstanding three seats remained vacant as none of the candidates had enough votes to cross the initial EQ threshold. Going by the figures in the Electoral Code, the then AUEC (under Chief Election Officer Ayush Bahl) was required to conduct a reelection for the three seats alloted to NOTA. However, since there were already 5 members in the HoR, adjusting the Independent EQ by subtracting the NOTA votes from it meant that 3 candidates could have gotten in. That increased the strength of the House to 8, enough for a majority. This is exactly what the AUEC did. With the revised EQ, Neha Sheikh, Karan Lobana and Bhavye Jain got into the House. While this is not explicitly in line with the NOTA procedure as laid down in the Election Code, it minimally satisfies the rationale mentioned; a rationale developed only for the general elections but dubiously used in the by-elections. Given that the by-elections were an anomaly in Ashokan politics and that official procedure did not fully cover all the possibilities emerging from it, this maneuver by the AUEC can be overlooked.

However, the election of Nipun Jain, Jai Desai and Shreya Jain does not adhere to any procedure or rationale laid down in the Election Code. Even after the revised EQ, they simply did not qualify to enter the House. The AUEC vaguely mentions on the votes tally sheet that the EQ was further dropped to enable them to get in the House. However, they do not share any figures on what the double-reduced EQ looks like. This is because it was impossible to reduce the EQ any further beyond what had been done in the first case, when Neha, Karan and Bhavye got in. In the given scenario, the AUEC should’ve conducted re-elections for those 3 seats as neither Nipun, Jai nor Shreya had enough votes to qualify to get into the House (each of their vote tallies fell short of the reduced EQ of 194). Not only is their entry into the House the result of a grave error, it is also entirely unconstitutional.

Furthermore, the AUEC also covered up and internally reconfigured their electoral calculations without explicitly communicating or justifying these changes to the student body. In a clarificatory email communique on 15th September 2021, the AUEC confirmed that they were “constitutionally bound to offer 10 seats in this by-election.” In accordance with their official announcement, they were consequently also obliged to provide 10 votes as per amendments passed to the Electoral Code just a month prior to the election. As per their email dated 10th September 2021, the AUEC had passed an amendment to Section 8.4 of the Electoral Code mandating that “In the event of a by-election each voter may only cast as many votes as the number of seats being offered for the by-elections.” However, on election day, the student body was only allowed to cast 6 votes across 6 independent candidates (and the option of NOTA). This adjustment was reflected in their already erroneous calculation of the EQ, however, the AUEC made no effort to inform the student body of these changes. This created scope for misinterpreting the outcome and implication of the by-election. It is untrue that 6 candidates were contesting 10 seats in the by-election, nor would it have been possible to conduct elections in this way given each voter can only vote once for each independent candidate. It further exposed a major flaw in the rules of the Election Code, which fail to outline a procedure for when the number of seats up for grabs outnumbers the candidates standing for elections, leaving such situations up to the discretion of the AUEC.

At this juncture, it is fair for the student body to expect some kind of public addressal regarding these errors, given the blemishes it has left upon the record of the Ashoka University Election Commission. Upon reaching out to the previous Chief Election Officer, Abhay Hari, for comments, he affirmed that there was “nothing in writing” to justify or expand on the rationale used to allow Karan, Neha and Bhavye to enter the House. He elaborates saying, “When you’re conducting an election you have to apply that specific context into your calculation and [you] cannot combine the logic of two elections to determine a preferred outcome.” The rationale of non-majority of the House that was exploited was the result of a previous election and the subsequent resignations. The remaining members in the Interim House at the time “were not even contesting seats,” so it should not have influenced the AUEC’s electoral judgment of the NOTA threshold. As Abhay points out, it brings to question “what was the purpose of having over 50% NOTA among the casted votes? The number was too significant to just ignore.” This appears to be the most pertinent question that the AUEC managed to evade, disregarding the direct implication and message that the student body was conveying through its vote.

Note: The Edict reached out to former CEO Ayush Bahl and former Election Commissioner Rohan Chopra for comments but did not receive an official statement.

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