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Education, Elections and Expectations: Student Elections as a Case Study in Psephology

Disclaimer: All views and opinions expressed are those of the author/authors’ and are not indicative of views held by The Stephanian Forum and its team.

What if we told you that any student election contested anywhere makes for a very

interesting case study in democracy and psephology? But before we go on to talk about how, let’s take a trip down the corridors of history and look at another watershed moment.

Imagine yourself standing at the turn of an era. India is independent. You have a nearly

blank slate. You are the leader of a newly independent India, and the first general elections are around the corner. You have an important decision to make, a decision that will be significant in so many ways, a decision that will decide the trajectory that this new nation will take, a decision that will put down the values and principles that will shape its future: the simple decision of who should have the right to vote.

Today, it may strike you as a pretty straightforward question - why, shouldn’t every adult citizen have the right to vote – Universal Adult Franchise – yada yada! It fits so naturally in our vision of democracy that anything otherwise seems unthinkable, even counterintuitive. But seventy-five years ago, this answer was not as clear as it is today. Although it comprised only a small group, there were people who doubted the merit of granting everyone the right to vote.

A future and more enlightened age will view with astonishment the absurd farce of recording the votes of millions of illiterate people.” These words were said by Penderel Moon on the occasion of India’s first general elections. Moon was an ex-Indian Civil Service official and a scholar from Oxford. Another editor from Madras, C.R. Srinivasan, around the same time, called these elections “the biggest gamble in the history of democracy”. Unsurprisingly, there were resonating voices along the same lines coming from the west too. These concerns were but natural, since only 16% of India’s adult population was literate back then. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since. Today, the literacy rate stands at 68% and 84% in rural and urban areas respectively.

A pertinent question at the heart of this debate is this - how much of a difference, and what kind of difference, does education make when it comes to voting patterns?. The question at the heart of this article is an even more radical one - does education even make a difference to voting patterns at all? You may ask: what does this academic debate of political science have to do with an “apolitical” college such as St. Stephen’s? Well, we would say - everything in this world!

This is a good time to brood over this thought-provoking question since only last month the college ran its annual Student Union elections. SUS elections or any other student

body elections hold important lessons to answer this question. College elections are one space where we find a 100% literacy rate. Everybody who attends college has a high school education or equivalent. Everybody is educated in subjects like civics, history, political science and sociology, not to mention basic literacy and numeracy. Everyone is deemed to be a rational agent, capable of making their own pragmatic choices by virtue of their education. Especially when it comes to a college like Stephen’s, the so-called “chosen ones” are supposedly “the brightest minds” in the country. Therefore, rationally speaking, it would be fair to expect that the quality of student elections in educational institutions should be much, much better than the quality of, say, India’s general elections.

Well, first, what does “quality” of elections mean? Let’s try to define that in concrete terms. It seems the idea of quality boils down, broadly, to four factors.

1. Quality of issues on which elections are fought

2. The way campaigning is done

3. The way the electorate votes

4. Voter turnout

Mind you, these factors are not exhaustive in any sense, but seek to give a wide picture. An easy example would be the common assumption that an electorate consisting of more illiterate voters will be more likely to get divided on issues of identity: religious, geographical, caste, gender, etc; whereas, a literate electorate should vote regardless of allegiances made on these lines. Representation, of course, is always a yes-yes, but voting simply because somebody comes from your identity group, or vote-bank politics for that matter, is presumably e a tendency of voters who are turning a blind eye to other more important factors, such as the promises and policies the candidates are proposing, their motivations to contest, their political choices, etc.

Well, does that ring a bell? Isn’t that what happens year after year in our student elections? Students’ choices stemming from personal biases, allegiances to identity, stereotypes, and falling for lofty promises - it visibly keeps happening. It seems educated voters get as conveniently polarized as uneducated voters. There seems to be unsaid rules of contesting student elections, whether SUS or DUSU. It’s as if the cards are laid, and one has to play one’s best hand with them. What are these cards? One can make some intelligent guesses. Regionalism is one. Caste is another. Ideology is yet another. A lot of times, the candidates do not want to play on the lines of these easy routes, but they (have to) end up doing so because of reasons beyond their control. Oh, that seems too much food for thought to chew, doesn’t it? Let’s get some fresh air and move out of the Rudra gate.

The road leads to Vishwavidyalaya Metro Station. It’s the month of August and September. You are stuck in a traffic jam. It seems the jam extends from the inner depths of Kamla Nagar all the way to Vishwavidyala and GTB metro stations. Desperate, uncomfortable, sweaty and stinky, biting your lips in a traffic jam in an e-rickshaw, looking at your watch time and again, you cannot miss the road having been turned white with the pamphlets and cards of DUSU contestants. The sky is hidden behind the banners and hoardings with the same blue or red text on white backgrounds. The blandness of these pamphlets and hoardings is conspicuous - they do not carry anything, anything, but the name of the candidate, bordered by the repeating name of the party they belong to. No slogan, no promises, no agenda - not even a photo - just the name printed in a font as large as possible. Come on, you wonder, at least they could have someone even the least bit Canva-savvy to edit this banner. A little more colour would have done no harm. Yet, one cannot forget these names that leave an indelible imprint in one’s mind for a long time. Even blank text, when presented with loudness, has such an impressionable effect, it seems! You cannot help but compare these sights with any Indian election you must have witnessed - local to state to national. There lie stark differences as well as similarities. While both employ large crowds to display power, use money (read: big budgets) and muscle (read: Fortuners, Audis and Thars), and make hefty promises, there are marked differences in the way the campaigns work - the way messages are put across, agenda are set and, well, placards are designed. These thought-trails leave you disappointed. One expects more from student elections. It’s difficult to define what the “more” is, but it should at least be some rungs higher than the quality of elections we see today.

Disappointed, as you return to college where there is a conspicuous lack of such cards and pamphlets, you are left with unsettling questions to deal with. Ooh, back at Stephen’s too, you sense election fever in the air. The stage of the college hall is set for the Open court! The Student Union Society is electing its President!

This year, 813 junior members cast their vote in the election for the college President. The voter turnout - at about 60% - was not very different from last year. Interestingly, the voter turnout in the Lok Sabha elections of 2019 stood at 67%. In the first elections of 1952, when literacy stood at 18%, the turnout was a whopping 55%. Voter turnout is a good indicator of people’s faith in the election system, interest in democratic practices, and a will to participate. It comes as a surprise that, at least in this case study, literacy has no impact on the voter turnout. If anything, the turnout of literate people is less than that of the turnout of a less educated general population.

One can come up with several explanations for educated people ending up not voting:

1. Students, even though educated in science, math and languages, find phenomena

like elections complex, and therefore stay at a distance; or

2. Students, even though literate, do not understand the value of public participation in

democratic processes; or

3. Students, although literate and valuing participation, still choose not to vote because

of a lack of faith in the election system or its outcomes.

What we won’t attempt to do here is try to analyse which of these possible explanations hold more or less water. A fun task for you, the reader, could be to discuss among yourselves the possible reasons for the non-relation between education and turnout. Another noticeable pattern is the drop in the number of votes from the first year to third year. While the high vote share by first years is understandable since this is often their first serious voting out of school (before they go on to get their Voter ID cards), the fervour and enthusiasm in general reduces as one enters the second and subsequently the third year. Not to forget - 58 invalid votes! That is a surprisingly high number. We checked with the student volunteers who witnessed vote-counting, and we found that most of the invalid votes were deemed so because of silly errors - putting tick marks instead of preferences, writing preferences in a way that makes it ambiguous, etc. In the past, there have been instances wherein students used the ballot to register their protests in unique ways. Some write stuff, some write other names, and the like. While a NOTA option on the ballot would be one way to officially allow such a space to protest, the twin problems of a) students not showing up on the D-day, and b) students not knowing how to vote, leaves room for thought.

We close this discussion where we began it: Do we not expect more from student politics? Shouldn’t educated voters behave differently? A bunch of educated youngsters are expected to do a much better job when it comes to elections of their own bodies. When there is a rise up on the literacy ladder, it seems contradictory to drop low on the ladder of electoral quality. Our observations so far show a picture which is not just inconsistent with this rationale, but rather the opposite. It is important to keep asking whether there are visible differences that mark a distinction between student elections and their real-world counterparts, and whether said paradox exists.

When all is said and done, an institution and its systems are only as strong as the values of their practitioners. Democracy, more than an electoral system, is a system of values. Any institution crafted from democratic principles will hold strong as long as the spirit remains intact. That spirit may and may not come from the electorate’s education - which then becomes secondary. The spirit is more important. And that spirit draws from you, reader. What you believe. What you value. And what you uphold.

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