(P)leader of Opposition: Is the LO even necessary?
By Trisha Nagpal, Aritro Sarkar and Sanya Chandra
Featured Image Credits: Ananya Bawa(illustration) and Saaz Lahiri (Photograph)
The authors of this piece stand by the primary argument: the role of the LO stands moot in the current context. We have taken into account concerns about certain insinuations and apologise for the factual errors. At the same time, we assure you they have been rectified as and when brought to our notice. Thank you for the same.
It has never taken much to stir the Ashokan pot. Heated discussions are elicited out of the most mundane things, and not much escapes the unusual wrath of theorization. On a campus as close knit as this, scandal is never too far. And indeed it showed up in the form of a remarkable email written to the student body by the Student Government Leader of Opposition Gaurav Nandan Tripathi, that blew open a can of worms leaving the House red faced. The email outlined the opaque nature in which the House selects cohort leaders: all House members, as it turns out, get a free pass into cohort leadership, and it is on this basis that they conduct the interview process, having assumed the post themselves.
The 6th House of Representatives (HoR) is in many ways a house of firsts— having been voted in by the highest number of votes in Ashoka history, presided by Ashoka’s first female President and unanimously regarded the HoR with the most transparency— but this begs the question: are they the most transparent they can be? Do we depend simply on the goodwill of the people concerned for accountability?
Priavi Joshi, President of the SG – the third successive Prakrit President – maintains that accountability needs to be maintained by the larger student body and by “clubs and societies like The Edict”. But what about all that goes on within the SG that isn’t divulged? The HoR is only accountable for information that we as the student body, as clubs, ministries, publications, political parties are privy to. One might assume that this gargantuan duty, of being both friend and foe lies with a member of the HoR themself- the Leader of Opposition (LO).
The conversation that followed the recent incident invited sizable sympathy towards Gaurav for his email and his decision to highlight to the student body a convention not known to most; it also invited criticism. But the saga exposed a deeper problem, one that seems to have been brushed over: where does all this leave the position of the Leader of Opposition? Just how does the LO hold the SG accountable? Do we even need the LO?
To answer the question of ‘need’ we must understand in what ways the LO can exercise power/duty. The current ratio within the HoR is 2:1. For every 1 member of the opposition (including the independents), there are 2 members from Prakrit. This number aside, the peculiarity rests on the fact that the government has been formed largely by one party, with just the solitary Moksh member, while the opposition has a fairly heterogeneous composition– rather than being united on some front they are simply ‘not-Prakrit’. Let us be clear that diversity here applies to simply the individuals’ political affiliations on campus and not other categorizations one can apply to individuals per se (caste, class, gender, among others).
Where does this leave the LO? As the House stands today, there is nothing unique to the LO that distinguishes them from the rest of the House members. The House confirms the new cabinet with a two-thirds majority. The LO cannot hold the House responsible either because they are themselves a part of the House. If the main question at hand is transparency and accountability, one cannot speak truth to power when they are in fact the “power” in question.
“So yes,” says Gaurav, “unless and until some incentive and discretionary authority is given to the LO in certain things like the budget, there’s no point of having an LO in the first place.” Priavi added that while the job of the LO is to ensure transparency and smooth functioning of the incumbent cabinet, “everybody [all House members alike] can also hold the cabinet accountable”. In fact, the LO used to audit the budget, a practice that has been conspicuous by its absence over the last few terms, suggesting a lack of vigour on part of the office bearers as well, which the incumbent allege. Further, while the LO can spearhead a Shadow Cabinet – an additional accountability mechanism – it has never been constituted in Ashoka SG history, and chances are it probably won’t be. Procedurally, if it isn’t blocked by a 2/3rd majority in the House, such a cabinet can come into existence through the initiative of the LO itself. Former LO Arnav Mohan Gupta alleges that it is unlikely, as “for the most part voting in the HoR happens on party lines”. Even if we were to go by the voting records in the house which indicate that they do not, this raises the same question- why is the LO needed at all if the members of the HoR keep each other in check? Interestingly, it must be noted that the President and the LO do share similar appointing powers, going by the Constitution, and hence questions about the LO’s ability at large too do not arise without currency.
Does the voting system change the role of the LO? Firstly, it would be fair to say that a majority of the student body wasn’t aware of the pros and cons of the system, perhaps because of disinterest amongst the maze of technicalities. The few however that did make an informed decision based it on the fact that the Swiss PR system would allow for independents to have greater exposure than candidates from political parties. It struck a balance between favouring parties and individuals as it won over the FPTP which allowed individual members to take full ownership of their seats regardless of party affiliation.
As optimistic as that sounds, the new electoral system does two key things. It privileges individuals through cross-party voting, something most of us saw as a merit for. At the same time, also brings to the fore the principles and agenda items proposed by different parties by featuring list votes. You cast a list vote for a party if you (optimistically speaking) believe in the party as a whole. The latter can mean lots for the scope of the LO, but that is contingent on the occurrence that parties actually become ideologically diverse, and of course, the LO representing the same diversity. “As of now, the ideological blocs are not distinct enough for partisan diversity to make that much of a difference,” says Deep Vakil.
This flaw in the Swiss PR system was something few anticipated. The option to vote for a party through “list votes” gave Prakrit, an already popular party a “swing vote” to establish hegemonic power in the HoR. We understand that this is the way Ashoka voted and it’s no fault of the party but the fact that the only options ranged from a one-party HoR to a popularity contest is concerning to say the least.
Additionally, it isn’t the system alone that led to this terrifying majority in the house, but also the lull of non-competitive parties in our current party culture. Had there been a party that was an equal contender to Prakrit and their numbers-we would not be faced with a ‘fair is foul-foul is fair’ situation at hand.
“It is alarming because the system has become such that [Prakrit] are being favoured, and it’s gotten to a ‘If not Modi then who’ situation: this leaves barely an alternative”, Kanan Gupta, a former LO said. He notes with alarm the changes in the political set-up at Ashoka that “Prakrit has single-handedly overseen”, citing the changes in the electoral system as an example of the playing field not being level anymore. The cause for concern is not the fact that Prakrit won ten seats – an abnormally high number regardless – for they did win the people’s mandate. If a party fields seven candidates and you need eight to bid for president, then you can’t even offer an alternative, a further shot in the arm for a party that has the capacity to field fifteen candidates.
Picking up crumbs from both sides is LIBERandU spokesperson and former Prakrit member, Akshat Praneet who makes an important observation: “We kept on building bureaucratic methods for the sake of transparency and efficiency but in the process we forgot to tell the people who we want to be transparent to, what is up.” If the way the constitution constructs the House is a body with a horizontal power structure and the way we think of it as a space where members voice their opinion regardless of batch, gender, political affiliation (all, of course, up for debate) then the role of the LO stands moot. If you need an LO, then you’re not living up to that spirit. Perhaps the need is to construct that role in an entirely different way– breaks down the systematic hierarchies (gender, home town, age, etc) in the way our campus functions.
Collateral damage to this mania of complex structures is the Leader of Opposition, whose job becomes more redundant with each passing strong armed policy change. A rethink may be warranted.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported an inaccuracy about the process for the LO to appoint functionaries. The article initially read “Procedurally, it can come into existence with a majority in the House”. However, as per the Constitution, the LO does not need approval of the HoR, but the HoR can block such an appointment if a 2/3rd of the House object to it. Further, it was earlier incorrectly reported that the practice of auditing the budget has been ‘done away with’; it has only not been followed up by the LOs themselves for the last three terms. The Government comprises of one Moksh member, which was not reported by an earlier edition.
Correction: An addition has been made with regard to the voting behaviour of the house after checking the voting records. Further, the Shadow Cabinet is merely an accountability mechanism without executive powers, and not an alternate executive or a cabinet-in-waiting, as two earlier versions of this article reported.