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Once upon a time, the school leader was elected by students.

In the 1980s, when school reopened after summer vacation, class leaders and assistant class leaders were elected (or in some classes, selected by the teacher). A week later, students chose the school’s leaders. If the first was a class election, the second was a caste election.

Any student from the 10th could stand for School Leader, and anyone from the 9th could stand for the Assistant School Leader. All high-school students (8th to 10th) voted for both positions; representing 5th to 7th standard students, their class leaders and assistant class leaders voted.

The visible event was the school assembly, 50% of which formed the electorate. There were no campaign issues, and no student organisations; the candidates did not have to form opinions, or rally the audience’s support for any cause. Hence candidates’ “election speeches” were banal utterances on leaders and leadership, and vague, neta-like promises to “strive to the best of my ability”. Speakers relied on verbal pyrotechnics to spark applause, and tell tales “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Long before Abdul Nasser Maudny, Loyolites knew to hold the audience’s attention by acting breathless, and screaming and spitting into the microphone.

Once every few years, a candidate would come up with a gem quote. Like Suraj Jacob in 1988, who concluded with one from Abraham Lincoln: “I want you to vote for me if you will; but if not, then vote for my opponent, for he is a fine man.” (For an interesting anecdote, read the context in which Lincoln praised his opponent.)

The chief election commissioner was the school’s politico: V.C. Jacob. He led the candidates into each classroom, made them stand near the teacher’s platform, and asked the students to exercise their franchise. A candidate voted when the entourage was in his class.

The ballot paper did not have the candidates names printed on it; the school seal was stamped on it to prevent rigging.

Once the high school classes had voted, the election caravan wound its way down the stairs to the gents’ staff room. There, the class leaders and assistant class leaders of standards 5, 6 and 7 were called in to cast their votes.

V.C. Jacob explained the value of each vote. A vote from Std 10 fetched 3 points for the school leader candidate, and 2 points for the assistant school leader candidate (see Table). He then began counting the votes, in the presence of the candidates.

[TABLE=3]

After a class’s votes were done, he took a sheet of paper and — in his neat, firm and legible hand — jotted down the number of votes, and the values. Once all the votes were counted, the losing candidate congratulated the winner, and all walked back to their respective classes. The following week, the school leader and his assistant were sworn in, along with the general captain and house captains, who were selected (I assume) by the management as advised by C. T. Varkey, the physical education teacher.

Here, I’ve documented the election for only one reason: such school leader elections are no longer held in Loyola.

Since the mid-1990s, the school’s leaders have been elected in different ways, from different classes. Briefly, the present-day arrangement is as follows: There is one school leader (from the 12th), and two assistant school leaders (one each from the 10th and 9th). Only the 12th standard students vote for the school leader, and only the 10th and 9th standard students vote for the assistant school leader from their respective years. The teachers vote for all positions. The counting of votes is done in-camera (by the Principal or Vice-principal, it is believed), and the winner’s name is put up on the notice-board a few days later. There is no investiture ceremony even though the school diary carries a date for the imaginary event.

An amusing feature of elections in Loyola in the 1980s was the undercurrent of caste politics. I refer to the ICSE vs SSLC “war” of those days as caste politics because it was a battle over group identities based on which division you belonged to. As the ICSE was a tougher course in high school, the SSLC students were perceived as lower castes; on this blog and elsewhere, I have been told by recent ISC students that the discrimination turned more open in the 2000s. No wonder that the ISC vs HSC war continues in Loyola at the time of elections.

The only difference I see is the role of the teachers and the management — they did not play caste politics in the elections of the 1980s because they did not interfere with the electoral process. Now, with the election becoming less transparent, and less democratic (from the students’ angle), the teachers and the management too seem to be playing caste politics during elections. In the past, if their golden boy did not win the election, they gave him the Best Loyolite award later in the year. In contrast, these days, they have their way in electing the school leader too. It got exposed in the 2007 election. That year, for the school leader post, there were seven candidates from 12th ISC, and the caste’s votes got split, while the lone candidate from 12th HSC mopped up the votes in his vote bank. When the result was announced, students were surprised: an ISC student had been declared elected. For a moment, it seemed that caste — ISC or HSC — no longer mattered. On second thoughts, it showed that numbers did not matter, caste probably did.

Though the school leader election has thus lost its credibility as an exercise in student democracy, there have been a few positive developments.

One, the school leader nowadays has more responsibilities (not merely giving speeches and saying “Classes, Attention” in school assemblies). Hence election speeches are a bit more substantial, with the odd promise thrown in. Elected leaders try to fulfill their promise, even if they don’t succeed always. So, there seems to be greater authority for the school leader, even though he lacks legitimacy.

Two, there are more elections in Loyola. The general captain and the house captains are now elected, and in these elections, only the students vote (the teachers don’t).

The Principal and the teachers need to do one thing: they should stop interfering in the school leader election, and make the election as transparent as it was in the distant past. Giving the school leader more responsibilities has been a positive step. But to give more powers to one (the school leader) by taking away the powers of the many (the student electorate) can hardly be justified. The student leader derives his legitimacy from being elected by students. He is a leader; he should not look like a lackey.

Hat tip: Arun Sudarsan (2009)