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“Trust is AUEC’s Greatest Asset”: Ex-CEO Suggests Ban on Former Commissioners Joining SG

By Shashank Mattoo (UG20)

Ashokan elections never fail to disappoint. As someone who spent two years in the Ashoka University Election Commission (AUEC), I thought, like all old-timers do, that I had seen it all. However, with two former election commissioners taking up the mantle of student politicians amid much hue and cry, I find myself compelled to jump in one last time to try making some sense of this matter.

Perhaps a bit of background to begin with. During my tenure as Chief Election Commissioner (CEO), the House and AUEC considered the merit of having a “cooling-off” period before a student could move from student politics to the AUEC. This discussion has again come to light with the current commission, which has two former Prakrit members. But it is not so cut and dry to say that ex-partisan members will politicize the EC, or that somehow having only apolitical folks will help the EC. Tarz was formed by the two former commissioners who had no prior political experience and the only one actually uninvolved in starting a political party was the commissioner with actual political experience i.e Vaibhav Parik.

When I first heard of Amola Mehta and Maanya Saran’s new party, I found myself slightly bemused that not one of us considered what might happen if an Election Commissioner left the AUEC in order to contest student elections. Yet, in days past, I have realized that our oversight, far from being an act of foolishness, came from a place of trust. It was a testament to the reputation for integrity that the AUEC had built for itself that we focused all our energies on the question of keeping former politicians out without ever considering what might happen if one of us decided to make a go of it in politics.

The AUEC’s greatest asset is the trust it commands in the student body. We do much work that requires the student body to trust that we act in good faith. When we moderate election debates, there’s always the risk of a political party that finds our questions too sharp attempting to cast doubt on the AUEC’s intentions. The same is true of the hearings we hold for campaign ethics violations. In the past, such accusations would have been laughed off. The AUEC is no stranger to controversy. After all, the risk with standing in the middle is that you get run over by traffic from all sides. We may not always have made the right choices but the crucial fact is this: even our worst critics would concede that we always tried to make them, as fairly and impartially as we could. I find myself wondering whether this latest controversy in Ashokan politics might end that.

Will every utterance by an Election Commissioner now be regarded with suspicion as something to be dissected for its political leanings? What about the working relationship between the House and the AUEC? Will party members have to guard everything they discuss in confidence with the AUEC, aware that the members of the independent body they are supposed to trust might be their opponents in the next election?

Traditionally, the outgoing CEO has exercised the somewhat informal prerogative of recommending a qualified candidate to take their place. One day this role could even be formalised, with the outgoing CEO joining the President and LO in a three-member selection panel for the next CEO. Problems may ensue if the recommended candidate is selected to be CEO and the former CEO then launches and wins a campaign for the Presidency of the AUSG. Can we trust the CEO to be impartial when dealing with the person they may owe their job to? Apologies for being fantastical but then again, no one ever imagined we would be in the situation we are in today either.

To be frank, in a student body like Ashoka’s, I fear that students with political ambitions may now simply see the position of election commissioner as a stepping stone for public office later in their tenures. Unlike many who vie for public attention during our election campaigns, the AUEC has the eye of the student body handed to it. Even better for the ambitious political hopeful, there are only two others with whom you share the limelight. Can election commission moderation in debate be trusted again? A sharp question asked to an unwitting first year on stage earns you much admiration from the crowd — admiration that could be a base for your next political campaign.

However, I must say that I don’t believe for a second that the former members of the election commission will use any confidential information available to them during their tenures. Neither do I think that this decision reflects on their past performance as Commissioners which I think has been exceptional. The problem with casting a doubting Thomas-like eye at their recent decision to go into politics ignores the larger problems with politics in Ashoka.

The new CEO Abhay Hari put it best when he pointed out in his Edict interview that Ashoka has a very small group of students who have actively engaged with student politics. I can state candidly that in my time leading the AUEC, I received only 5 or 6 qualified applications for the post of Election Commissioner. Many of them were formerly involved in student politics. Similarly, very few students have engaged with student politics or worked with the House as closely as Maanya and Amola have. With lots of demand for qualified students to fill positions in student government but a worryingly limited supply, I think the formation of the new party will certainly add to student politics.

But, perhaps a little selfishly, I’m worried for the future of an organisation to which I devoted much of my time at Ashoka. I do fear what will happen in future election cycles if people look upon the AUEC as just another political actor. So what is to be done to put an end to the whispers and doubts? I believe the HoR and CEO might consider a blanket ban of former members of the AUEC serving in positions of elected office or as ministry members. This precedent is already followed in Indian politics as members of independent bodies like the UPSC or the Election Commission may no longer hold public office after their term in office. The remedy may seem like overkill yet we must consider that not everyone will be as convinced of the intentions of Ashoka’s newest political party as I am. For those who do not know the former election commissioners and their past track record as I do, this latest controversy may seriously compromise the unflinching faith they previously had in the AUEC.

In suggesting this ban, I want to make clear that this move has nothing to do with the intentions of the former election commissioners. I’m utterly convinced that their intentions in forming this party are positive to their core. Good and fair intentions alone, however, cannot avert lasting reputational damage. Trust is all about perception and for a body like the AUEC, it is all we have. When we amend the election code, present a proposal, or simply say something in public, people believe we act in the best interest because of the goodwill we have built up. As a former Election Commissioner told me when I took the job, the AUEC’s best weapon is having no weapon at all. I would like to keep it that way.

Shashank Mattoo was a part of AUEC for two years. He was Chief Election Officer for 2018-19, and an Election Commissioner for 2017-18. Views are personal.

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