With the release of the election notification for the Student Bar Council (SBC) 2018-19, the student body must seriously begin considering which candidates it wants to elect for the academic year. As with any other election in NALSAR, the cult of personality, regional politics and ‘hostel’ politics (a convenient term to gloss over blatant sexism) continue to rule the roost. Candidates and interest groups usually plead the defence of the need to play dirty politics in order to be able to do good work upon being elected. But should the electorate fall for such glib?
Optics Triumphs over Real Diversity
Criticisms of the Executive Council and the Student Bar Council not accurately representing the demographics of the student body has led to the phenomenon of the politics of optics. In this politics of optics, candidates’ affiliates arrange for the token representation of ‘diversity’. The problem with this ‘diversity’ is that it does not truly embody the principle of diversity. The space for identities is carved out not so much after a consideration of the inherent benefits in having multiple perspectives on the SBC but for the narrow and consequential reason of shielding oneself from the criticism of floating a homogenous body.
Furthermore, this ‘diversity’ is curiously restricted to the identity of sex. Perhaps the prolonged demands for having a greater representation of women on the SBC has prompted the politics of optics to consider diversity in terms of sex. But other identities such as caste, class, religion, gender, sexuality and nationality are never worthy of consideration, even for this politics of optics. It is important to expand the notion of diversity on the SBC to include identities other than sex because individuals belonging to these identities, on account of being minorities, face difficulties in getting elected to the SBC – which as with any other democratic process relies on majoritarian support. Perhaps it is time to begin considering this need for diversity at the level of electing batch representatives itself by instituting reservation on the basis of these identities in the SBC.
Regional affiliations still loom large over the direct elections of batch representatives as well as in back-door negotiations regarding the posts in the Executive Council. It is difficult to understand why this is. One can only speculate that perhaps it is caused by xenophobic and sub-nationalistic fears of loss of power.
This is not to say that we ought to completely disregard the value of an equitable representation of different regions in our SBC. Regional affiliations carry cultural histories and there is immense value in carving the space for a plurality of cultures in the SBC. But the way in which regional affiliations have influenced SBC elections are more often than not antithetical to the idea of an equitable regional diversity in the SBC. As with the politics of optics, the influence of regional affiliations has little to do with the inherent value of diversity but more with narrow, immediate or consequentialist reasons such as votebanks. Furthermore, equitable regional diversity ought not to be restricted to the representation of North India and South India (largely restricted to the representation of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana), but also the representation of regions that are not otherwise considered – for instance the North East, and countries outside India. Each batch consists of members that are foreign nationals and members of SAARC nations; however they are never considered when regional diversity is discussed. Furthemore, candidates who do not wish to affiliate with any region may find it difficult to successfully contest in the elections or for a post in the Executive Council.
The GH’s campaigning is no better than BH’s
For far too long, the women on this campus have struggled to find themselves represented in the SBC, even in years when they held the numerical majority. While it is widely accepted that the campaigning culture in the Boys’ Hostel (BH), at least at the first level, works on the basis that all residents must vote for a male student for the very reason that he is a male member of the student community, the Girls’ Hostel (GH) has massively failed in countering this culture. Campaigning in the Girls’ Hostel is also majorly based on the rhetoric of voting for a candidate for the very reason that she is a female member of the student community. Instead of challenging the sexist culture of campaigning and voting that is perpetuated by the BH through transforming elections discourse and propagating an alternative that is completely unrelated to markers of sex, the GH has largely replicated this culture. Through replication and responsive adaptation, the GH is perpetuating the very sexist culture it rallies against!
Unless the GH rejects the BH’s sexist culture of campaigning and creates a different discourse, it will not succeed. Furthermore, the GH needs to discard its myopic priority of only getting women candidates elected to the SBC and begin strategizing about making the day-to-day functioning of the SBC truly feminist.
The Power of the Cult Personality
Presidential elections, if not elections to other Executive posts, often operate on the cult of personality. With each V Year batch, it is widely known who is likely to nominate themselves as a candidate and who is likely to win, years in advance. This is because students groom themselves or are groomed by seniors to pursue Presidential ambitions years prior.
There is nothing wrong with having these ambitions or working towards them by understanding how the system works and by representing student interests in earlier years and then campaigning upon this evidence of ‘merit’. However, when that ambition translates into the creation of a cult personality, we must ask ourselves if something is amiss. Candidates who have created a cult of personality for themselves, keeping in mind the capitalisation of such personality during SBC elections, are often projected high above other candidates who may be just as competent, by disproportionately taking the credit of collective work done by past SBCs or by creating the investment of great expectations through hyperbolic illusions of their accomplishments and dedication to the interests of the student body.
By the cult of personality, they come to be regarded as the only ‘saviours’ of the SBC, begrudgingly even by their critics, and create such an illusion of indispensability that the student body’s collective imagination cannot fathom a SBC without them. (It is also imperative to consider which members of the student community are enabled to create the cult of personality on account of their gender and regional identities.)
One may very well argue that such candidates are well within their right to create the reputation they wish and that if the student body is gullible enough to fall into the trappings of cult personality, it deserves the candidates it gets. But what this argument fails to consider is that the cult of personality is created and can only be maintained by the Cult Personality’s constant real and symbolic appropriation of the power of the student body. The Cult Personality narcissistically and insidiously assumes for itself the power of the student body and actively perpetuates the politics of dependence. To maintain the support of the administration, the cult personality may also attempt to rob the student body of its power to initiate, protest and demand. Why must the student body demand, when the Cult Personality has promised to be the saviour and take up the issue? Why must not the student body feel indebted when the Cult Personality has seemingly achieved the impossible, but only really fulfilled what is constitutionally mandated and reasonably expected? The cult of personality perpetuates the illusory culture of power-worship and robs individuals of their power to challenge, question and reclaim. It prioritises symbolism over substance and completely overlooks moral and political principles and ideals.
Systemic change and power to the people have been achieved in the past not through the cult of personality but through the efforts of the collective public. The very election of a cult personality by the student body means that we have, ourselves, given up our power and vested it in one individual. Neither the SBC nor the Executive Council ought to be located in, or revolve around, one individual. Of course, the President is the representative of the student body and the SBC. But the President ought never to envelope the SBC nor decide for the student body its fate.
Reclaiming our Power
The problems with NALSAR elections are numerous, but not insurmountable. As much as we’re made to believe that this is how the system works, we need to keep reminding ourselves that we’ve accepted these problems with our complacency and internalised them.
Addressing these problems begins with the self-realisation that we hold the power to resist these tendencies, and can constantly strive to negate them through individual electoral choices and alternate collective mobilisation and campaigning. This election cycle – Resist. Reclaim your power. Exercise your agency.
– Srujana Bej (Batch of 2019)
The author would like to thank Amani Ponnaganti, Kumarjeet Ray and Priyamvadha Shivaji for their comments on the piece.