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Presidential Debate, 2023: A Bottomless Pit of Promises?

by Aneesh Sriram, UG'25

The student body witnessed the first-ever post-pandemic presidential debate in a fully packed Takshila. The four presidential tickets, with the exception of Vice Presidential Candidate Swayam Nath (absent due to “volunteering”), argued their case to the student body in a debate chaired by Vishnu Prakash, outgoing editor of the Student Government Newsdesk. The structure of the debate allowed for a 2-minute opening statement by each candidate, followed by general questions from the moderator, individual questions posed to specific candidates, and finally, questions from the audience. In addition, The Edict had put together a team to actively work on fact-check requests sent in by the audience.

Most of the candidates’ opening remarks reiterated their desire to create a politically active space that works for the interests of all stakeholders, with more transparency about administrative decisions. Overall, though the general tone of the debate remained hopeful, how many of these promises made by the candidates actually seem achievable?

Sankalp Dasmohapatra and Tamanna Parikh’s Leher campaign focused on “getting stuff done” in terms of workers' welfare, administrative transparency, and diversity. They pointed out that while the “system may be cracked, or even broken”, a politically active campus has the potential to fix this system. What they intend to deliver is the “Ashoka we were promised”.

Rutupurna Debalina Naik pointed out that they have worked previously with the administration to find solutions to various issues but did not substantiate those claims with examples. It is also to be noted that Rutupurna asked the student body “to not be so worried” and “stern” in their dialogues: “chill maro na thoda sa” (relax a little).

Navya Asopa, meanwhile, stressed the need for a Student Government that does not “dance to the tunes of the admin”. Later in the debate, she cited this as a reason justifying the establishment of a Students’ Union, modeled after the likes of Delhi University. She also criticized the lack of transparency around issues such as caste census and inclusion. Her running mate, Domil Johnson, spoke about their experience in several Model UN conferences, though they did not clarify how this would help voters make informed choices. They also highlighted the need for clarity regarding financial aid and better food and nutrition for students.

Hazim Bin Fayaz emphasised his experience working with administrative bodies such as the mess team and a manifesto premised on practical solutions. His running mate, Aditi Bathla, explained the importance of concrete solutions rather than simply bashing the administration. This campaign intends to “build bridges, and not burn them”, standing at odds with Navya’s campaign calling for complete opposition to the administration.

While the opening remarks provided some insight into the candidates' motivations and priorities, they were largely non-specific.

The moderator, Vishnu, asked about the role of political parties and the president in Ashoka, the vision of the Student Government for national issues and the student apathy towards the SG. The participants had different views on the role of political parties in Ashoka.

Rutupurna, the former president of the since-dissolved party Sattva, said there was “no advantage in being a party”. Navya pointed out that having only one party on campus established an unequal playing field for independent candidates. According to Domil, a party is supposed to represent a wider opinion with an ideology, calling out Leher since it “does not have any ideology”. Hazim said that he did not want to be bound by ideology. Sankalp believes that a lone party with a rigid ideology could be dangerous, citing this as a reason for Leher to be more inclusive. He also responds to the concern that Leher is the only party on campus, claiming that it is “not [their] responsibility to ensure that other parties also run against [them]”.

The vision of the SG on grounds of national engagement largely divided candidates. Sankalp and Tamanna referred to their manifesto regarding the creation of a National Engagement Committee for this issue. However, Navya and Domil pointed out that every single student should take up national issues, and that they did not want to “outsource this basic element”. This perspective, aiming to mobilize students on national issues based on majority consensus, does not account for the fact that different people with different ideologies will not be able to come to a stable conclusion. In fact, it is unfair to expect them to do so. Hazim and Aditi touched upon this, voicing their concern about the multiplicity of opinions surrounding several issues of national importance. Sankalp maintained the SG should be a platform or frame for students to take up these issues. For Rutupurna, a committee is needed to initiate conversations and “move beyond apathy”, but this committee would have to engage with the larger student body and consult them on their opinions.

With elections close to a four-month-long summer break, student apathy and disinterest remain a major concern. When asked about their plans to mitigate this, Rutupurna said Ashokan apathy is premised on the individualism pervading campus culture. A campaign based on “building connections, building trust, and community engagement” would resolve it. Tamanna and Sankalp claimed students voting in a fully functioning Student Government would “half resolve” the issue of apathy. The Leher ticket went on to discuss how they planned to appoint ministers and open inductions to ministries during the summer break in order to keep the student body engaged. Navya went on to blame the administration for student apathy, citing instances of inaccessible spaces.

Leher’s manifesto emphasises improving the ministry system. When asked to elaborate, they provided insights into the challenges facing the ministries, such as red-tapism and the differential relationships with the administration across different ministries. However, Sankalp and Tamanna did not substantiate their plans to actually increase the recognition of ministries by the administration and make them more effective.

One of the key campaign topics for Hazim and Aditi’s campaign has been the potential privacy breach of the MyAshoka portal, brought to light in an email sent out by the ticket to the student body. The moderator questioned the wisdom of publicizing such a sensitive issue since it was now possible for some students to work out the exact mechanics of the user authentication glitch and manipulate the portals themselves. Hazim doubled down on his decision to send the email, claiming that the “student body deserves to know what is being done with their information”.

The question of unionization was discussed by all candidates. While Navya and Domil strongly support the establishment of a Students’ Union, Rutupurna believes the political atmosphere at Ashoka is not conducive for such a step at the moment and could be considered “five or six years later” instead. Hazim and Aditi reiterated that they do not wish to consider the administration their enemy: “admin is not right or wrong: it is somewhere in the middle”.

Nevertheless, candidates did not engage with the legal implications of forming a union and the challenges that might arise in negotiating with the administration. They could have also addressed alternative measures that could be taken to strengthen the voice of students. The issue of the student union's independence is a complex one. On the one hand, student unions have a responsibility to represent the interests of the students. On the other, they must work with the university administration to bring about change. This can be challenging, especially if there is a lack of trust or communication between the two groups when they are outside the ambit of the Constitution.

While the audience questions did not spark much fruitful debate, the representatives of the Ashoka University Queer Collective (AUQC) spoke up about the issue of trans housing on campus. With the exception of Rutupurna and Swayam, the AUQC called out all of the other candidates for using trans housing as a campaigning base without approaching the Collective for a conversation regarding the same. The representatives reiterated that they were only interested in “working with the SG since they need administrative support” and not electoral candidates.

Repeated by most candidates was the promise to “speak for [the student body]” and “fight for [the student body], with [them]”. Though these phrases sound good in a rousing debate speech, audience members questioned what concrete steps would be taken to achieve the same. Sankalp and Tamanna provided a list of actionables, such as setting up the House of Representatives, the Councils, and the Ministries, conducting surveys, and hosting open town halls and monthly reviews. Navya echoed the need for regular town halls, suggesting that grievance redressal measures should be laid down and an inquiry could be set up into “why things are going bad”. Hazim clarified that he did not wish to literally fight as the President, while Rutupurna advocated for a gentler approach since she “didn’t understand the aggression”.

The issue of political promises that seem to be a bottomless pit of unfulfilled commitments is a complex problem that requires a multifaceted solution. It requires both student politicians to be more realistic in their promises and the student body to hold their elected officials accountable for the promises they make. The vote on the 30th of April will be a testament to the solidarity of the student body, and The Edict encourages every student to vote.

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