By Mark Schneider
With the passage of the 73rd amendment in 1992, the Indian government devolved power to village leaders—initiating the largest experiment in democratic decentralization in the developing world. This amendment also included an aggressive affirmative action policy which established a system of caste-based quotas for elected positions in local government—giving members of groups such as the scheduled castes access to power in their village for the first time—often in contexts of severe inequality. Do quotas for scheduled castes improve the lives of members of these groups? What are the effects of this policy for the groups that it benefits and dominant groups most likely to be threatened by a policy that excludes them from important positions in village government?
Simon Chauchard addresses this question in Why Representation Matters: The Meaning of Ethnic Quotas in Rural India, a careful examination of this policy in rural Rajasthan—where scheduled castes are particularly marginalized and subjected to practices of untouchability. This book focuses mostly on the psychological and behavioural effects of quotas for scheduled castes—moving beyond the focus on material benefits of much existing research. At the same time, it is one of the most careful examinations out there of the position of sarpanch and the political and social context occupied by sarpanch. Along with important insights that follow from a theoretical framework that integrates literature in political psychology and minority representation in the U.S. and a mixed method research design, Chauchard’s insights on the practical functions and constraints of the sarpanch also have important implications for future research on local governance in India.
In this review, I address three core contributions of the book: rich descriptive evidence on the practical functions of sarpanch and local politician-voter relations; the theoretical framework on psychological, material, and normative effects of quotas for scheduled castes; and the novel survey methodology employed to test the argument. I then consider questions for future work that follow from this study.
First, Chauchard makes an important descriptive contribution appreciated by those of us who have spent time with sarpanch who appear much less omnipotent in practice than work in political economy suggests. Chapter 3 on the functions of the sarpanch is perhaps the best description of the substantial but limited powers of the sarpanch I have seen in political science. He identifies the importance of routine services such as signing government forms and mediating access to the police and other parts of the Indian state while establishing the limited powers of sarpanch over policy outcomes such as the allocation of below poverty line (BPL) cards. The weak discretion over policy implementation he highlights helps readers interpret the lack of impact of quotas on material benefits that he finds, using a natural experiment identification strategy similar to the one used by Dunning and Nilekani with similar null findings on SC distribution. Chauchard also provides important qualitative insights on the current practice of untouchability as well as important observations on non-SC villagers’ rather muted reactions to the quota policy. Along with being essential for the theory and quantitative sections of the book, the qualitative observations on caste relations and the day-to-day functions of the sarpanch are a serious contribution.
Chauchard’s theoretical framework is compelling for what it explains should and should not be expected. Drawing on his understanding of the weak authority of the sarpanch, he explains why we should not expect SC quotas for sarpanch to lead to significant changes in distribution—and relatedly why we should not expect a backlash against SC quotas among upper caste villagers. He argues that SC quotas are unlikely to lead to serious material distribution to SCs for two main reasons. First, work which assumes that this will occur suppose that sarpanch are primarily responsive to co-ethnics and often view co-ethnics as belonging to the quite broad category of scheduled castes. On this point, Chauchard provides an important corrective. He argues that Jati, or sub-caste, is a more socially and politically salient identity category in rural India—which means that if quotas are consequential for distribution, we should observe favouritism toward the sarpanch’s jati—with plausibly little material benefits reaching other scheduled caste jatis in the village.
Second, winning an election for sarpanch in the ethnically diverse context of the gram panchayat (where voters of all castes participate) requires sarpanch to construct multi-caste coalitions; this means that sarpanch must be responsive to constituents from many castes rather than just their own. Thus, along with their low level of discretion over distribution, we should not expect quotas to lead to serious redistribution to SCs overall—while favouritism toward one’s jati is unlikely to lead to serious exclusion of dominant castes. Following from these constraints and the rotating system of quotas—where the SC quota will be removed the following election cycle—Chauchard argues that we also should not expect to see backlash against SCs following the introduction of SC quotas in their village. The real or perceived group threat that triggers backlash in other electoral settings (e.g., state or national levels) simply does not exist when the sarpanch is temporarily reserved for SCs.
After this important brush-cleaning, Chauchard argues that there are two types of mechanisms through which quotas plausibly reduce discrimination toward SCs. According to the taste mechanism, the presence of an SC sarpanch could change stereotypes toward that group by SCs and dominant groups alike. SCs may perceive themselves as more efficacious than was the case in the past, while dominant groups may revise their often negative attitudes about members of the scheduled castes. Chauchard doubts that quotas provide a strong enough dose of exposure to counter-stereotypical SCs to impact to fundamentally change attitudes toward SCs among SCs or non-SCs. On the other hand, he argues that an SC sarpanch can change expectations about others’ behaviours in ways that reduce public forms of discrimination (e.g., practices of untouchability) through what he calls the discrimination mechanism. This is not a result of changing attitudes of acceptable behavior, but through an expectation that SC sarpanches have the formal power to punish egregious forms of discrimination through their access to the police and other political and bureaucratic figures. This provides an important insight: however transient the SC quota might be, when SCs acquire formal political power, it creates a perception if not reality of new costs for discriminatory behavior.
Chauchard tests his argument with a novel research design which combines a natural experiment—which makes it possible to compare gram panchayats that have never experienced a quota with those that experienced an SC quota for the first time—with novel survey instruments that allow him to test his argument. Three contributions of this design stand out. First, he splits his sample in each village between scheduled caste respondents and non-SCs. This provides an opportunity to examine how quotas have affected dominant and marginal groups in the same village. Second, following from qualitative fieldwork, he constructs realistic vignettes that capture attitudes toward SCs and different expectations of behavior toward members of the scheduled castes. Third, Chauchard goes to great lengths to protect the privacy of his respondents to ensure that responses are as truthful as possible—minimizing the role of social pressure that might make respondents either more or less likely to admit to quite negative stereotypes and beliefs about appropriate behaviors toward Dalits. Specifically, he develops a survey design using an MP3 player where the interviewer plays very little role in the conduct of the survey—and the respondent largely self-administers his own survey. By using MP3 players to deliver the survey instrument, Chauchard largely removes the possibility of interviewer effects while also removing the ability of other villagers to influence responses to the sensitive questions/vignettes included in the survey instrument. As someone developing a survey to capture norms toward marginal groups, I find the use of vignettes and maximal protections of the privacy of respondents to be a major contribution and one that should be followed in new research.
Chauchard tests his framework in three empirical chapters. Broadly, he finds that SC quotas do have effects on material distribution for scheduled castes as a whole— whether we consider local public goods (e.g., drainage facilities) or private government benefits (e.g., welfare benefits). Quotas do, however, have tangible effects on both types of goods for those in the largest SC jatis which SC sarpanch also belong to. This has implications for how we view the possible material effects of quotas. These results suggest that sarpanch have enough discretion to help their own sub-caste to some extent; however, the members of other SCs are likely to be left out of material distribution.
There are several more optimistic consequences of quotas. First, quotas lead to significant changes in social relations with respect to SCs overall. SCs report that they interact more often with non-SCs and the quality and respect underlying these interactions is significantly better where a quota is in place. Second, consistent with the discrimination mechanism, quotas have an impressive impact on non-SCs’ perceptions of acceptable behaviours toward Dalits. For example, upper caste respondents where an SC quota is in place are less likely to believe that members of dominant castes will be socially sanctioned for speaking well of SCs or for inviting SCs to a marriage. They are also less likely to view acts of intimidation against SCs as acceptable or likely to go unpunished. These effects crucially take place when quite negative stereotypes about SCs are unchanged by quotas. Finally, it is important to note that SCs—particularly the members of the sarpanch’s jati—are more likely to contact their sarpanch when there is a problem and more likely to resist acts of discrimination by upper caste villagers. This suggests that SCs who may fear lodging a complaint with an upper caste leader have become more civically engaged as a result of quotas.
Overall, Chauchard’s findings provide several important insights. First, while quotas for sarpanch have largely failed to result in a redistribution to Dalits—which means that caste inequality is unlikely to be significantly improved through this policy—it has created rather remarkable consequences to village life. Even in a context where the practice of untouchability persists, SC quotas have led more villagers to transcend the social divide more often. This is a significant occurrence because Dalits rarely dared to enter an upper caste area, but now at least one member of the SCs does so frequently and has the formal power to command respect among upper caste villagers. Since changes in contact go beyond the sarpanch alone, we might be optimistic in the long-run that beliefs about SCs could improve over time or at least that the social divide between SCs and non-SCs will continue to weaken. In addition, it is impressive that the simple existence of an SC sarpanch has led to significant (although not massive) differences in perceptions of the costs of discriminatory behaviors—even when the sarpanch often lacks the authority to punish such acts—as well as less tolerance among SCs for such discriminatory behaviors. This suggests that including SCs in political power—even when this power is quite limited—can lead to major changes in village social life.
Several areas for future research follow from this important work—some of which I am exploring in ongoing work. First, while Chauchard argues that sarpanch have electoral incentives which lead to targeting a multi-ethnic coalition of voters, as does Dunning and Nilekani, we know little about the political incentives of sarpanch. This is particularly important because sarpanch rarely have re-election incentives given the rotating quota system. Further research should consider how sarpanch construct their political coalitions and why it is that those who supported the sarpanch expect them to deliver. What drives the strategic incentives of sarpanch—particularly among scheduled castes who are unlikely to contest elections again? One possibility, as I have argued with Neelanjan Sircar, is that sarpanch are responsive to those they prefer to be responsive to—and that elections simply pick sarpanch who have such beliefs irrespective of electoral incentives. Another possibility is that local party networks—and the local elites who control them—shape the behaviors of sarpanch even when they do not face re-election incentives. How these partisan networks operate in practice should be explored in more detail to understand why sarpanch should be responsive to their electoral coalition. Future research should also consider the role of social constraints and the ways in which SC sarpanch may face different constraints— due to their social position—which may limit their distributive strategies more strictly than non-SC leaders.
Second, future work should examine long-term changes in SC empowerment at the elite level now that SC quotas have been in place for over two decades in some GPs. Chauchard importantly isolates the effects of quotas where there have been established for the first time. This likely means that his impressive findings are conservative as SCs have acquired very little experience in power at the time of his study. Therefore, it is valuable to consider how representation of SCs can impact long-run changes in the political organization of SCs in rural India, which may have consequences for caste relations even when the sarpanch is not from the scheduled castes. For example, Krishna tells us that the emergence of SC fixers has made it more possible to access the Indian state. Since ex-sarpanch often remain among the most significant village leaders—and are often employed as intermediaries by state politicians as well—how has the political presence of SCs changed following their first taste of power decades ago?
Third, Chauchard makes important advances to survey methods that employ sensitive questions. It is a worthwhile conversation to consider the benefits of the MP3 player design among other alternatives that can maximize the chance that we get valid responses on sensitive questions from tolerance for violence against religious minorities and Dalits to more mundane attitudes toward different groups. What are the trade-offs between the MP3 player design here, list experiments, and other non-obtrusive survey designs? Moreover, Chauchard’s vignette approach—rooted in qualitative observations—is a valuable template for scholars working on measuring local social norms and social relations beyond the context of quotas. For example, work on village moral economies often relies on behavioral measures. Chauchard’s approach may be extended to look at norms of this type among others. It is also more directly replicable for studies interested in discrimination of particular social groups.
Overall, this is an important book that forces us to focus on the many subtle ways that even the least experienced local office holders can impact their societies and improve the lives of group members. It is obvious that quotas are not a remedy to caste inequality or prejudice. In fact, they are perhaps designed to have a modest effect on village inequalities due to the multi-caste electorates that choose who become sarpanch where quotas are in place—which were opposed by Ambedkar himself. Despite the severe social and institutional limitations of SC quotas for the position of sarpanch, Chauchard provides a tour de force in theorizing and empirically examining the subtler ways that SC representation can be consequential. He gives us many answers, but just as importantly, gives us important questions to pursue in the future and tools that will aid us on this journey.
Mark Schneider is a Visiting Professor of Political Studies at Pitzer College. His research examines electoral integrity and the consequences of free and fair local elections for the quality of local representation and government responsiveness toward the rural poor.
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