In the most recent meeting of the Students Affairs Council, members considered a proposal to allow online campaigning for student elections on campus. Citing difficulties in regulating online content, especially slanderous material against candidates, the Council overwhelmingly voted against the proposal. Given the far-reaching consequences of the proposal, SAC has decided to suspend the decision, pending wider consultation with the General Student Body. This article hopes to make a case for allowing online campaigns.
I was thirteen years old when the 2004 General Elections were held. Campaigns had reached a crescendo with just a week left for the elections. While national leaders were touring important constituencies, local leaders tried to mobilize supporters through an eclectic mix of tactics – from broadcasting parodied versions of popular songs at major junctions and roadsides to beautifully painted wall-posters, personal appeals, and bribes. Ten years later, the election was won by a mix of traditional methods and social media blitzkrieg. Facebook and Twitter became an integral part of the campaign, and hashtags won or lost votes for parties.
While India has moved on, its premier technological institute has steadfastly remained unwilling to embrace the newly available platforms. Campaigns on campus have remained a door-to-door affair, with uninterested or inconvenienced students forced to listen to the manifesto points recited by exhausted candidates.
Consider the following. More than 18 simultaneous elections are held in the Institute for 9 Executive Wing posts, 8 Hostel Councils, and a few Councillor posts. Moreover, our Institute has approximately 7,500 hostel residents across 18 hostels. With at most 9 days available for campaign, a candidate is required to meet with more than 800 students a day, and each student is expected to meet with candidates for all 18+ elections! Voters, muddled with incessant on-the-face campaigning, are therefore unable to make a clear and informed choice. This, among other factors, forces them to rely on easily identifiable factors like region and religion to decide whom to vote for. Oftentimes, this unsteady and asymmetric flow of information helps coteries command ‘vote banks’ traded for future benefits, including, but not limited to, positions of responsibility within Shaastra and Saarang core teams.
What are the benefits of online campaigning? By allowing online campaigning, we give voters and candidates a better chance at interacting with each other. Voters can question their candidates directly, while candidates can understand their electorates’ needs better. This would lead to better manifestos, and more informed voting by the students, leading to the subsequent election of better representatives.
The internet offers an amazing level playing field for potential candidates – it doesn’t matter if you are supported by a “gumbal” or not. There have been past instances of candidates being asked not to file nomination papers, or to withdraw them later on due to lack of support from “cliques”. Once online campaigning kicks in, it doesn’t really matter if you have a Godfather, or how many “foot soldiers” you have to run the election – you can get your message out to the voting public.
With the internet offering symmetric information, increased competition, and better student representatives, why is there such a clamour against it? The aversion to allow online campaigning primarily concerns the regulation of content. Candidates and/or their supporters, either directly or indirectly, may post slanderous material, false accusations, or other ethically questionable content online to influence voters. This, SAC argued, would adversely affect the candidates on and off the campus.
The mere fact that a platform may be used to indulge in unethical behaviour shouldn’t automatically disqualify it as a legitimate means of communicating with voters. By extending the SAC’s argument, one may be tempted to even stop “soap-boxes”. You may watch the soapbox video to the post of Academic Affairs Secretary in 2013, when one of the candidates was bullied, booed, and disrespected by an unruly crowd. The bullied candidate eventually won the election, two days after the video was uploaded.
I urge the SAC to pass online campaign unanimously – focus on monitoring content rather than regulating it. Any voter who engages in spreading unverified allegations or accusations against candidates may be punished by rescinding his or her voting rights. If fake accounts are created to vilify candidates, I am sure the students of IIT Madras are intelligent enough to ignore them. Usher in a new era of openness, competition, and transparency in campaigns that would ultimately lead to better student representatives. It doesn’t behoove a technological institute of IITM’s stature to shy away from the digital marvels of our times.
It is, however, a sad reality that over the past couple of years, there has hardly been any competition in most of the posts. Bizarrely, in the 2013 elections, all Executive Wing candidates were elected unopposed!
About the Author
Arun Sudarsan is a 2014 MA Economics Graduate from the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences. He was MA Councillor 2013-14. As a Member of the SAC, he chaired two sub-committees, one of which drafted the IIT Madras Honour Code
Editors’ note: the latest situation
An emergency SAC meeting, open to the GSB (General Student Body), was held on 12 February to decide upon the motion of online campaigning, among other things. At the meeting, the Speaker presented the results of poll meant to gauge opinions among the GSB. The respondents were given the choice of unrestricted online campaigning, and online campaigning through a regulated portal. Of the 320 respondents, 57% were for unrestricted campaigning, whereas a greater majority of 68% supported regulated online campaigning.
As per suggestions made by the GSB, a system for restricted online campaigning has been passed by the SAC. In the model of IITB, online campaigning will only be allowed via a Facebook page, administered by an indirectly elected committee (headed by the Election Officer and comprising of SAC members and members of the GSB whose identities will be undisclosed to avoid influencing). This is pending final approval by the Election Officer, though it has been received well by the BoS (Board of Students).