I got 99 problems and now an election is one

It’s that time of the year again. Much like the onset of a spring season, when plants and flowers start to bloom after an icy hangover, many things have popped up on campus: candidates, election meme pages and a whole lot of campaigning. 


It wouldn’t be right to assume that all of us are equally invested in these elections – of course, there’s not much difference that the Institute Sports Secretary can make in your life if you are averse to any form of physical activity. 


But, moving on to the broader posts, why should you care? 


Let’s start with breaking it down, shall we? 


With speculations and rumors aplenty about who is and isn’t contesting the entire year, it’s in February that they take firmer root. Candidates begin preparing their manifestos around this time as well. This is important, you see. Hopefully you, my dear reader and average voter, would attribute some importance to the manifestos of the candidates you vote for. Then comes the Soapbox. This is the first problem (of many, I assure you) we’d like to address here. 


The Soapbox


It is indeed remarkable that we, as college students, conduct a formal election debate for the public when our country does not. The best chances of you, dear reader and average voter, attending a Soapbox depends on if you have had a friend contesting for a post, have been a part of a PoR that was associated to the post, or if you have been a nervous T5E correspondent any time in the month of March in the past. The purpose of a Soapbox is for the students of the institute to determine whether the candidate is eligible for their vote or not. It was probably with this intention in mind that the vast SAC gallery is the venue for Soapboxes, but unfortunately, it remains largely and blissfully empty for most of the Soapbox Sessions (particularly for those of the unanimous candidates). Most Soapbox sessions have the Executive Council members (even then, not all of them, not all of the time), the SEC and “the GSB”. 


This ‘GSB’ is special because it’s not every day you’d see a group of students so agreeable and so happy with what one particular candidate says the entire two hours.

To phrase it better, the students who turn up for the Soapboxes are often in groups, having already made up their mind on whom to vote for and are often accompanied with a ‘crowd manager’ conducting them like an orchestra.


The battle lines are apparent – these crowds coalesce at opposite sides of SAC, and will clap, cheer and boo – even chant innovative slogans. Often throughout the sessions, you’d see particular groups clapping along to anything remotely confident particular candidates would say, or booing to drown out what the others say.

The orchestration here is key – the sloganeering often helps a candidate get away with a half-answer delivered with some amount of oratorical bravado.

Soapboxes, which were originally intended to facilitate a healthy and meaningful discussion for the students to determine the most eligible candidate, end up being a two hour hollering contest. You’d not deny that it was the entertainment factor involved in the session that had you make your way to SAC on what could have been a boring evening.

Why are we more interested in attending the Soapbox of a contested election?

Why not that of a unanimous election? 


As to why you, average voter but my dear reader, should attend, it is this – you are a stakeholder in the areas of duty and responsibility that these elected secretaries hold. 


The most educated questions come from the Executive Council (EC) and the Core Team, of course. Being thorough and experienced with the process, they will have the most fundamental and crucial questions for the candidates. Often times, the answers (or lack of) to these questions are insights into the candidates, and the questions themselves are insights into the working of the institute. But let us save the explicit and implicit bias that the EC and Core Teams carry towards candidates for another piece altogether. 


The GSB has a lot of incentive in attending one, be it seeing the candidates in action, or be it the takeaway knowledge through the questioning. Yet another significance of the GSB’s participation is that the questions that an average student can ask will never come from the Executive Wing. A student that is not involved in any of the teams under the secretary, will have the questions that will affect the 8000 something students and general stakeholders. 

But before considering all of this, we need to start by asking ourselves who exactly the Soapbox is for. If the questions are planted, the audience is planted and the applause is planted, why do we need this mere show of a responsible democratic process?  


Manifesto and Accountability 


There is a general and common argument: at the end of the day, these secretary posts are just platforms for students to practice leadership and management skills on a larger scale, and develop their overall skill set.


I disagree with this vehemently.


These posts aren’t free-for-all volunteer-ships, coord-ships or core-ships. Ideally, an aspiring secretary should have surpassed all these levels before deciding to contest. How then, can we set such a low bar for what we expect from them? If it is only a personal growth exercise for them, do they need to be felicitated with the grandeur and pomp of Institute Day, and go down in the history books of IIT Madras as student representatives?


As students, we must remember that we are the primary stakeholders. In a larger sense, our experiences and concerns on campus would, at least in part, rest on these secretaries. There are various aspects to insti life that these student secretaries have the power to change for the better, and it is crucial that we pay attention. 

What is the point of the elections if candidates repeat the same impossible points in their manifestos year after year? 

More importantly, how is it possible that they can do this? That brings us to another crucial point – it simply is.


An institute secretary can simply be on the post, and get 0% of their manifesto points implemented and still get a certificate and silver plate in the end, because there is no provision in the constitution that mandates that they implement a minimum set percent of their manifesto.


Why is it that this is not important? Why is a freshie able to fail something like NSS for falling a few credits short while Institute Secretaries roam free of any accountability to what they endorse during the elections? 


How can we change it? 


Of course, we can’t bring about change overnight and that too on any significant level. But we can take small steps to make ourselves aware, and to learn to care. 


Learning to Care

In the case of the Students’ General Secretary’s office and the like, it is more evident what the impact would be for the student body. For something more nuanced, such as the IAR Secretary, one might wonder why one should pay attention to what a candidate’s vision would be. But herein lies the problem.


All of these posts are in some way capable of bringing some change to the average student. The sameness of the manifestos, the methods, and most importantly, the people over the years might be the stagnation factors in these. For example, take the AAS. Why is it that the candidates’ primary focus is Placements and not Academic Affairs? For the past two years, the IPR head has been a unanimous candidate for AAS and so it becomes their primary focus. This has also led the notion that placements are their focus to be ingrained in our minds. There are many other responsibilities that the AAS heads – primary ones being responsible for the Career Development Cell (wouldn’t we all benefit from some form of career guidance?), our representative in Senate and BAC meetings, the Library and so on. Similarly, the Cultural Secretaries have the responsibility of maintaining a healthy cultural life alive in insti aside from just focusing on Saarang. 


It is my unfortunate non-pleasure to inform you, that we need several election reforms at a structural level. One example would be a limit on the number of manifesto points that a candidate is allowed to have.

What is the use of endorsing around 30 points for a manifesto when a secretary manages to get around only 4-5 points from it done (truly done), at best?

The point of a manifesto is lost here, and all these great promises merely become ‘manifesto padding’. It is the metaphorical equivalent of having someone promise you a great pizza party in Phoenix and then take you to WOSS. You knew this was probably going to be the case, you knew that sitting around eating pizza in a mall would never be anything close to a party, but you bought into the promises anyway. 

(Disclaimer: Dear HAS, we love WOSS and HFC and we’re proud that you maintain the FSSAI guidelines. Long live HFC. Dear reader, please drop by WOSS sometime soon.)


But unlike dashed expectations, your choice of a candidate has more riding on it. Limiting the number of manifesto points to around, let’s say, 10, would be a good start to making sure that the candidates put in effort to make those points actually good. This would help us, as students, to keep a check on the completion of these points as well. 


While the SLC has tried to improve the situation by bringing in feasibility checks and reports, it doesn’t seem to have made much difference.

Feasibility reports tend to look good and ‘work’ – but as it says, on paper. Moreover, one needs a trained eye to cut through the clutter of verbose feasibility reports to understand the ground reality of ‘feasibility’.

At this point, we should ask ourselves why we are doing it if it is not fulfilling its intended purpose? If the feasibility report process is not doing its job, we need to think of where exactly the process is going wrong, and be able to find a solution to either improve on it, or to find an entirely new way to ensure that the candidates’ promises are viable.


Initiatives and Longevity


Another issue to be noted is the initiatives and their longevity. You can agree, I hope, that there is no point to a secretary introducing 5 different organisations and mushrooming them under themselves. Their ideas might be good, but one person trying to set up and expand so many initiatives in such a short span is certainly difficult.

We must look at the important question here – are these organisations truly set up to thrive even after the secretary’s tenure? A simple look at all the different organisations and websites that were once glittering manifesto points of an erstwhile secretary but are now defunct answers the question. 

These initiatives will merely become someone’s resume point, and not a genuine attempt at creating change. There needs to be more scrutiny from the SLC on this, so as to ensure a sustainable growth of these ideas. At the end of the day, we as an institute would prefer to not have the reputation of being unable to follow up properly with our own initiatives. To question and keep our interests in mind in these very grey areas (not so grey areas as well, most certainly), we need a vigilant and active SLC – and this, I’d prefer to say, allows me to take you, dear reader, to our next point – Legislators. 


The Department Legislators

Bringing up Department Legislators might seem like taking a jump down from the bigger issue of Secretaries. It is, but it is also a jump deeper into the flawed structure we have in place. Their responsibility might seem trivial to some of you, but I cannot tell you in a manner clearer than this – you, average student, are also very wrong.

Your Department Legislator has the responsibility of representing your interests in the SLC.

Good ideas are a criteria, yes, but for the post, you’d ideally need a person who is capable of justifying your interests, opinions, and ideas in front of a group of people. And this group should be an active group of people who understand the ideas, fundamentals and consequences of everything they are voting for. 


To offer you a better idea of the importance of this post, take the example of the Department Legislator of a particular department, whose responsibilities include organising a internship fundae session for the students of the department. Not much effort goes into organising one, the only task is to gather everyone into a room, and provide a board and chalk for them to write down an exhaustive list of the internships they did and applied for and then talk briefly about their experiences with these. The Department Legislator’s duty is to facilitate such a space and time to pass on such tacit knowledge through the years for maintaining an engaged and successful department. Such an interaction would have helped juniors who later realized they missed out on a few opportunities, merely because they didn’t have the information. 


Here, we can confidently admit to the fact that, even if the average person might not have too much riding on a post like the CulSec, each and every one of us are stakeholders in the Department Legislator’s area of responsibility. We cannot afford to not care about the competence of our Department Legislator.

We must ask ourselves, where is the placement fundae session happening, where is the career building happening, where is the networking happening, where is everything that you came here for happening?

If you can’t get proper access to the immense opportunities of networking, and everything else the institute could have offered you and benefitted you with, there is something very wrong with the way we see the elections, and vote as well. Why are we not noticing that the Department Legislator is a key piece in this entire scenario of you and your life here as an IIT-ian? 

It is time we realize that the stakes are higher for the smaller posts. 


And yet, not even having a Soapbox for Department Legislators is problematic. Most departments do not have a Soapbox session for the candidates, and this needs to be changed. This simply means that we should hold them more accountable, for their manifestos, as well as their execution of it; it means that we should have a system in place where the Department Legislator first thinks of reaching out to the students and understanding what they need, and works on that before bringing in fancy ideas. 


This would apply to all elected representatives, in some way or the other, in fact.  Sending out survey forms is acceptable, of course. But limiting your interaction to this is simply a sad state of affairs.


For the Department Legislators – it is absolutely easy to reach out to a smaller subgroup such as your own department, and hence inexcusable if they do not do it.

For the Institute Level posts – it’s remarkably lax on their part if they decide just a form is enough, considering the significance of the post and the impact and power they are supposed to wield, and for the simple reason that the most important duty of the elected secretaries is to act in and according to your best interests. 

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