The Presidential Debate – As it Happened
Anjana Ashok, UG 22
The long-awaited Presidential Debate took place on February 10th, 2020, at 9 PM in Dr Reddy’s Auditorium. It was the final chance for the candidates standing for the Sixth House of Representatives in the Student Government to directly address their audience- the Ashokan community- before the voting. The session was moderated by Arnav Mohan Gupta. The panel consisted of (sitting in order from left to right): Harshit Kumar (Independent Candidate), Priavi Joshi (Prakrit), Shwetha Singh (Independent Candidate), Aryan Srivatsava (Moksh), PriyanshSoni (Dhamma), Chirodeep Naha (Independent Candidate) and ‘Aadi’- Kumaraaditya Rao- (L.I.B.E.R.AND.U.)
After a brief introduction, the candidates presented their opening statements, beginning from the left side of the panel. Harshit Kumar started this round, clearly stating his visions as an independent candidate and what he hopes to bring to the table. He is followed by Priavi of Prakrit, who shared her experience as someone who had already been part of the Student Government for one year. Throughout her tenure, she has worked with many issues, including transgender housing, which she highlighted in her statement- the fact that some people struggle to find a safe space to live.
After Priavi was Shwetha, another independent candidate, who said that one of the best things throughout her campaign was interaction. Having been able to connect with so many people at Ashoka, she wanted to work towards finding solutions for issues they were going through. Her first priority is to provide whatever support and help she can to make sure every voice is heard and every talent is showcased.
Following Shwetha, Aryan from Moksh presented his opening statement. He divided his statement into three parts- Why Moksh was right for him, Why Moksh is right for the audience, and what Moksh stands for. Aryan said that what really drew him to Moksh was the open induction policy. He emphasized on the kindness of the seniors and their willingness to take in every idea, many of which they have already begun working on- for example, waste segregation, water rationing and reduction of plastic usage. He then tells the audience that Moksh is right for them because of the problem-solution format. They also believe firmly in sustainability and were the first party to have a paperless campaign, which they continued for these elections as well. Coming to his third point- what Moksh stands for- he focussed on inclusivity. He gave some examples of solutions, such as hiring female gym instructors and staff, workers welfare, and having a point of contact in the student body to talk about problems and address solutions.
The fifth candidate to speak was Priyansh of Dhamma. His statement was centred around inclusivity, as well, but he took a different approach in his presentation. He spoke specifically about the treatment towards the students on financial aid- for example, not having access to the non-vegetarian mess coupons, or not having a level playing field in the classroom in some cases. He also clarified that rather than trying to malign the admin’s work, Dhamma is troubled by the fact that the students have been complacent to such a culture. He believes in action to help students, integrate the staff members as Ashokans, and focus more on dialogue and solutions.
The third independent candidate, Chirodeep Naha, was the next to speak. He introduced himself and begins by sharing some personal experience as someone born and brought up in Bangladesh. He talked about the students who, when Bangladesh was part of Pakistan, had risked their lives for their mother-tongue and motherland. He then states that India is a land of many languages, and Ashoka, being in India, should follow a similar system. However, he has seen several friends give up their subject of choice because of the advanced language expected from them. He says that if this is the case, the idea of Ashoka is compromised. He then puts forth his motivation to stand as an independent candidate- he wants to work selflessly for his society, something he learnt from the Quran during his childhood
The final speaker of the evening for that round was Aadi from L.I.B.E.R.AND.U. He started with what he has come to realise about Ashokan politics- it’s all about big words, manifestos which are looked at once a year, and social media pages which are active for fifteen days. He then draws laughter and raucous applause when he proposes to build a biodome over Ashoka- as, unlike a bubble, it cannot be broken- to protect it from ‘external elements such as smog and the struggles of real-life’. He finishes by saying that if L.I.B.E.R.AND.U does get elected, they will either dissolve the house or collectively resign.
After this informative round of opening statements, the moderator announced the Quickfire round- the topic or question was put up on the screen. A candidate is selected at random, and the rest answer in cyclical order from there. Each person got 30 seconds to answer and was not aware of the questions, meanwhile, the student body received an email with the appendix for context.
The first round of quick-fires started with Moksh. The topic was ‘reservations in the student Government’. Moksh passed the question, while Priyansh of Dhamma answered that he didn’t believe reservation was the solution to creating a level playing field for everyone. Chirodeep also said that everyone should be given an equal chance, and there should not be reservation. L.I.B.E.R.AND.U. passed the question as well, after which Harshit Kumar pointed out that Ashoka does not even have statistics about the ethnicity and culture of the student body. Therefore, he says that there cannot be reservation, at least until the cultural survey is known. His answer drew great applause. Priavi also agreed with Harshit, and added that she would like to further interact with the students to find a solution. Finally, Shwetha ended the first round by saying that everyone needs to be brought to mainstream focus, regardless of where they’re from.
The second topic was ‘Substance Abuse’, this time, starting with Priyansh of Dhamma. He said that though the administration is penalizing, the root cause must be addressed, and therapy and de-addiction is an important part of the process. Chirodeep stated that the topic was a grey area and he was not the right person to comment upon it. Aadisuggested docking culture points, while Harshit said that individual conversations need to be held on such topics. It also needs to be spoken about during Orientation week. Priavi of Prakrit looked at it from a different lens: cultural, legal- looking at the situation as reformative not curative- and counselling. Shwetha then said that having a rehabilitation centre is very important. Aryan (Moksh) ended the round by agreeing with Harshit about having an Ashoka Centre of Wellbeing Counsellor. He also points out the CADDI reforms in their own policy and suggests having more constructive measures about how to reduce them.
The next topic is a popular one- the cats on campus. Starting with Chirodeep and then moving to Aadi of L.I.B.E.R.AND.U., both of whom said they had no problem with the cats, the mic passed to Harshit. He said that they should continue the work with Pawsitive for neutering, but students had no right to debate about whether the cat should be existing the first place- of course, they should. Priavi, too, liked the cats, but she did take into account that many people do not like the cats in the mess, where they eat. For this, she suggested continuing the work of neutering the cats, and also blocking the passageway from the basement to the mess, which is how the cats usually get in. Shwetha agrees that it is only an issue in the mess, not in general. When the mic passes to Aryan from Moksh, he said to neuter them and let them be because ‘that’s what inclusivity is all about’. And finally, Priyansh of Dhamma had no personal problem against the cats, and would also like to continue the work with team Pawsitive for the comfort of both the cats and the residents on campus.
The fourth topic is ‘curfew’. L.I.B.E.R.AND.U. started the round, proposing to change all oxford commas to Cambridge semicolons in articles 2A to 3F of the constitution. Once again, his statement brings a wave of laughter and applause. After his answer, the moderator, Arnav, quickly clarified the details about the curfew for some candidates. Harshit said that as he was not at Ashoka the previous year, it was difficult for him to answer the question. Priavi was very firmly against curfews. Shwetha drew an even louder applause than L.I.B.E.R.AND.U. when she pointed out the fundamental problem- that students are safe at 11:59, but not at 12. When the mic passed to Aryan of Moksh, he said that more than the curfew itself, which is not such a big issue, it is the fact that the admin had taken it away without the referendum of the student body. He and Priyansh from Dhamma both agree to stand by whatever referendum the student body come to. Chirodeep finishes the round by disagreeing with curfews, stating “anything which blocks my freedom of movement is undemocratic”.
The following question was about whether Ashoka University should get involved with DU/JNU politics. Harshit denied the very idea of ‘DU/JNU Politics’, saying we should get involved because it is about our nation as a whole.Priavi agreed, saying that Ashoka, too, is part of the nation- so why should we not engage in national politics? Shwetha added that it was important to have knowledge about the outside world. Moksh understood that such politics do affect individuals, and commended the SG for the steps they had taken to mobilise the students during the recent protests. Dhamma was very firm about taking part in these politics, and even suggested having a ministry for external scenarios. Chirodeep, too, agreed, and took a moment to thank all those who made efforts in the recent protests. Finally, L.I.B.E.R.AND.U made a fair point- that before stepping outside, we should learn toilet etiquette.
The sixth question was more personal, asking each member of the panel what was unique about their party and candidature. Priavi started off the round, saying that her uniqueness is in her experience, and Prakrit’s uniqueness is in the fact that they want to expand the scope of student politics, focusing more on policy and infrastructure than comfort and convenience. Accountability, inclusivity and transparency, too are important. Shwetha agrees with the last part, and then uses inclusivity as her main point, saying she is different because of her focus on detail and passion for field work. She advocates for everyone’s effort.
The mic passed to Aryan of Moksh, who commends the openness and the solution-orientation of his party. Priyansh of Dhamma reminded everyone of Dhamma’s experience as the oldest party and praises their long-term mindset. He feels his candidature, in particular, is unique because he worked before joining Ashoka, hence his work ethic would really help, especially in communicating with the admin. Chirodeep said very simply- “I myself am very unique. Please vote for me.”
Following Chirodeep, L.I.B.E.R.AND.U. says that their party does not get walked down by ideologies, and they do not need students to tell them what they want- their party already knows it. Finally, Harshit rounds up the question by suggesting his ideas for a well-being portal. He also says his candidature is unique due to his independence- he has no bias or obligation towards any parties. His only obligation is to the students.
The last question of the quickfire round was about resignation from the Student Government. Shwetha and Moksh agreed that if one is not able to give their full effort, it is better to resign. Dhamma also added that it is important to know what one is signing up for and to be mindful of it. Chirodeep, too, felt that it was personal and that one could not be forced to work as such.
L.I.B.E.R.AND.U. was clear- if they do make it to the house and cannot dissolve it, they will resign. Harshit’s approach was similar to that of Dhamma’s, stating that one should be mindful about the fact that they were selected as the student body’s voice- however, he also said that if a person is not feeling motivated, then it should be okay to leave. Praivi finished the question- and the quickfire round- by saying that there should be no toxicity behind resignation- it is a long commitment, and it is ok to resign, as long as one’s party is okay with it- and for independent candidates, they are willing to see their successor through the house for a period.
The next round was Moderator Questions. The questions included crowdsourced ones, and each member of the panel had one minute to answer.
The first question was open to all- “the SG received a complaint about workers welfare. All candidates have something on their manifesto about these issues. How do you look to solve the complaint, and can you propose a time frame? The workers work more than their hours, mess food is not provided to them, and they should be allowed to carry meals.”
Chirodeep recounted a personal incident when he saw the discrimination between himself and two bhaiyas at the mess, saying that he felt discomforted. Priyansh from Dhamma said that the narrative needs to change- the student body cannot be the face of the movement- the workers need the power to go back to them. Representation of students in the worker welfare committee and having multilingual contracts are some ideas that can be put to use.
The moderator then poses a follow-up to Chirodeep, asking him whether he had any solutions. Chirodeep said that as he didn’t know the workings of the house, he could not propose a clear answer, but would work with the admin to help the staff no matter what.
After this, a follow-up was posed to Priyansh, asking him whether he thought the student body knows the most about welfare treatment out of any other people on campus. Priyansh said that the student body knows a great deal, but all he is saying is rather than being their face, the students need to support them and give them the power.
Harshit was the last person to answer this question. He gives three solutions- the well-being portal he mentioned earlier, having an anonymous complaint box for the workers, and directly engaging with the workers on each floor. The moderator immediately asked about equal access of the portal for all workers. Harshit suggests a 3-tier multilingual system similar to the LMS. Arnav clarifies his question, saying that many workers don’t have access to such systems. Harshit then proposes a common wifi, and the idea of putting the other two solutions into action. Finally, Arnav points out that many workers may not be internet/tech-literate. Harshit has an idea for this, too- giving them emergency contacts and special helpline numbers to have direct points of contacts with the worker’s welfare committee members.
The second question is whether the Academic Bridge program of Ashoka helps to accommodate the students or causes a separation. The question is open to all, but targeted at Harshit, Prakrit and Moksh, as they had points about this on their manifesto. Priavi (Prakrit) first says it is important to know what the Bridge Program is and how it works. She speaks about how she, along with a group, had taken informal feedback about the program. She also fairly points out that the concept- assimilating the students into Ashokan culture- is counterintuitive, as they, too make Ashokan culture. Communication can be worked on, but that seems to be it.
Harshit felt that the program brought about a sort of ‘otherization’. He suggests a smaller cohort during orientation week for one-on-one socializing, and peer-to-peer learning. Moksh presented an idea about a peer-system, with a screening process similar to that of a cohort leader, but fundamentally different in nature. Students from Delhi-NCR would sign up and get matched to an academic bridge student to help them get comfortable to the area which the campus is situated.
Arnav’s first follow-up was to Priavi, asking her about the feedback she had collected. She said that it was extremely informal, just asking a few people that she knew about the syllabus, whether they were able to give feedback, and what kind of work happened, at least through the first semester. The second follow-up was to Moksh. Arnav asked, “If I am clear, you want to stick to the bridge program?”, though he points out that students come in two weeks early for it on the admin’s choice. Aryan said that though they did not stress on that point in the manifesto, Moksh was open to working with other parties and programs, and feels it’s important for students to feel comfortable not just in academics but also external surroundings on campus.
The third question was:“Almost all parties speak about inclusivity, but do not disclose demographics of their members.” This question was open to parties only, and by demographics, there was stress on gender, caste and religion.
L.I.B.E.R.AND.U. presented their ‘GTFO’ token female, Swathi Singh, to promote inclusivity.Priavi said that though there was not much information about caste, as it may make people feel uncomfortable, it was a fair point and she would see what could be done. Dhamma added that most parties gave gender statistics to the Feminist Collective, but did not have stats about other demographic aspects. Arnav then asked about whether the stats of urban and rural areas matter. Priavi responded saying that it may be important, but she will have to have a conversation with the party to see who is comfortable with sharing such details. Dhamma said that they have never directly asked, but have had indirect conversations about it. He said they judge for vision and passion, rather than language and background
The fourth question was one of sensitive nature, open to all, and candidates were warned to proceed with caution: “None of you have anything on your manifestos about sexual harassment. How would you tackle the culture surrounding it, and address problems that ariserelated to this on campus?”
Harshit trod carefully, saying, for now, he can only think of mandatory CASH workshops in greater numbers and including it directly in the first-year curriculum. Priavi added that justice needs to be seen through. Shwetha agreed, saying that students should not just be sent to the police office to ask for help- CASH should advocate and give their support until the end.
Aryan of Moksh said that it is very sensitive, and students should be able to reach out to OAA in case of wanting to change classes due to discomfort, and a solution should be provided. Dhamma closes by saying that the SG should work as a pressure cooker to make sure appropriate action is taken by the institution. When he was asked a follow up- “does the current due process work, and would you stick with it?”- he says that because of the policy of confidentiality, he does not have enough knowledge to comment, but if students speak out, it needs to be looked into.
The fifth and final question was crowdsourced-“Queerdiscourse seems to be dominated urban population withvsocial capital, contacts, and reading material. Given that, how can LGBTQ with lower socio-economic strata find their space here?Will the SG work towards actual intersectional identities?”
Shwetha suggested cultural programs, and letting student take an active part in decision making. Priyansh added that people become aware of certain situations when the narrative happens. During events like sports or mixers, people all come together and a safe space is created.Priavi, to thunderous applause, points out the language barrier of these discourses- most of them happen In English. She also notes that they are so intellectualized that they become inaccessible. Harshit agrees with Priavi, and gives a few other ideas, such as open lectures for those who are not comfortable in class.
The follow up question was the same for all, with Arnav asking about how to change the nature of events so they don’t become the dominating space they usually are. Shwetha’s idea was having a wider diversity of events, while Priavi emphasized her point ofmore accessible talks about lived experiences, and smaller, multilingual events. Priyansh and Harshit agreed with the idea of not limiting the type of events, and broadening horizons and Harshit also suggested a weekly calendar of events to be published.
Following this, the debate moved onto the next round- the Targeted Questions. One question from the moderator would be aimed at each candidate or party, though others are also free to answer afterwards. The questions were displayed on the screen, as well.
This round began with Prakrit: ‘The SG indulged in excessive spending during the last 5 days in the term. Between 2nd and 7thof February, they spent a total of 97300 rupees, 50% of total budget. Would you consider this to be unplanned and dexterous? If yes, how would you correct this over term?”The expenses, sourced from the finance ministry, were displayed on the screen above.
For this, Priavi clarified that the proposal was passed by the whole house, not only Prakirt. She also said that rather than unplanned, it was spontaneous- she felt that it was time for the SG to investing in capital expenditure to recreate campus spaces in a way that it creates a campus culture. Rather than being exclusive, it should grow to include most people over time.
After this, the moderator pointed out that a majority of the expenditure was in collaboration with the video games club of the campus. This could lead to several clubs approaching the SG for partnership or funding. He asked whether there were any mechanisms to solve this. Priavi replied that there was such a mechanism in the finance document, and she hoped that it could be advertised.
The moderator then moved on to Dhamma and Moksh: “Given the lack of due process, excessive, unfair suspensions on CADI’S part, how come reforming bodies like CADDI and ARC aren’t on your manifestos?”
Aryan from Moksh took the question first, reiterating the fact the Moksh is an open party- therefore, though it is not mentioned, they still have an open approach and would stand for any solution to the issues. Priyansh followed up by taking the moderator’s criticism and apologizing for the lack of mention of reforming CADDI on the manifesto. However, for ARC- which seems to be mandated by the UGC- it is unknown how many changes he will be able to make.
The moderator then posed a follow-up for Moksh, saying,“You suggested that you didn’t have it on your manifesto because you look forward to solutions from other people. So, does that mean you don’t have your own solution to the issues?”
Aryan refuted this saying that they simply didn’t expect people to rely on their solutions- rather, they are open to any solution and will always be in support, whether or not it is mentioned in the manifesto.
Following this, there was a crowdsourced question for Moksh, in which it was pointed out that most of Moksh’s solutions seemed to be executive in nature, causing a separation between legislature and executive. Aryan was then asked to elaborate what Moksh would do differently from other parties, providing tangible legislative solutions. Aryan responded that there are legislative measures as well, which do require the house of Representatives to vote. He also says that the HoR is a representation of the student body who want to see a change. Therefore, the executive nature is also important, as they can see that a solution is in place.
Th next question was also crowdsourced, directed at Shwetha: “Many points you bring out in the candidate debate and manifesto relate to concerns of different individuals on campus, but lack of clarity about the main focus. What is your main focus? Would you rather have stood as a minister or do you need this seat for a reason?”
Shwetha explained that she was working particularly on campus issues such as food and transport. The reason she is standing for the house rather than for the ministry is because she has been able to reach out to various people through this experience, and has acquired a profound knowledge about various issues which she might not have learnt of otherwise.
The final question was directed to Prakrit and Dhamma. The moderator asked about the support these two parties showed in unionizing the SG, as the fee in the plan turns the SG into a binding body for the student body to pay for. Should students be able to opt out of the SG because they charge such a fee?
Priavi quickly clarified that no extra amount is being charged, they are just reorganizing the system so that the money goes to the SG rather than the OSL. She also said that they are pushing for a referendum, so the details can be discussed at that point. Priyansh of Dhamma elaborated that the idea is to make the SG more democratic and financially independent. He, too, agreed that they are pushing for a referendum, but also believes that students should have the option to opt out of the system.
That was the final question of the targeted round. Following this, there was a round of Audience questions. 8 questions were taken in total- 4 from individuals who are not part of any party, and then 4 questions from party members. After the audience questions, there was a fifteen-minute round of cross-questions, before the presidential debate drew to a close. This was the final opportunity for the candidates to directly address their audience on such a platform. The voting commenced at 8AM on February 13th. It is to be noted that the voting timings are: 13th– 8AM to 8PM, and 14th– 8AM to 5pm