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Has Reservation In Politics Actually Helped People From Scheduled Caste Groups?

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By Jennifer Bussel for India Ink:

What are the effects of affirmative action policies? To what extent do such policies sufficiently address the injustices that years of discrimination have imposed on specific groups within a society? In “Social Justice Through Inclusion: The Consequences of Electoral Quotas in India, Francesca Jensenius takes on the difficult but important task of answering these questions. She uses an important example of reservations in electoral constituencies for members of India’s scheduled caste (SC) groups—formerly called “untouchables”, known today as Dalits. Here, she sheds new light on the differential effects that such policies may have on members of their target groups.

The empirical context for Jensenius’ analysis is India’s state legislative assemblies, which, since 1950, have utilized quotas to ensure that members of scheduled caste groups hold a portion of legislative seats. Overall, 15% of India’s state legislators are elected from SC “reserved” constituencies. While reservations were initially intended to last for only 10 years, they have been retained indefinitely. In this book, Jensenius sets out to examine the implications of this extensive and extended history of affirmative action.

Ram Nath Kovind, India’s second Dalit president. Image source : Wikipedia

Jensenius’ primary argument, as I see it, rests on an important conceptual distinction between the possible goals of policies that are designed to promote social justice. While many assume that the goal of affirmative action policies for elected officials is group representation—specifically the descriptive representation that results from having a member of one’s group in elected office—she argues that this is not the only possible goal. Policies may instead be designed (implicitly or explicitly) in ways that promote group integration. The key distinction here, using her findings in the Indian context as an example, “is that the quotas have brought to power SC politicians who look and behave similarly to other politicians—not SC politicians who focus on working for the interests of the SC community” (3).

Thus, individuals who are elected via a quota system (designed in a manner that promotes integration) will become a part of the political system in ways that might well have been impossible without quotas. These SC representatives, then, like their fellow legislators, support policies that respond to the needs of the population at large—or their voting base—rather than only their co-ethnics. This distinction also clarifies the importance of considering the effects of policies on elites versus the general public or, more specifically, between the politicians themselves, and the voters.

Jensenius combines this discussion with attention to Nancy Fraser’s three aspects of social justice upon which we might expect affirmative action policies to have effects: redistribution, political participation, and recognition. Any one policy may have effects on none, some, or all of these dimensions, for either or both elites and the general public. Her argument, then, is that we should not necessarily expect to see strong effects of reservations on all aspects of social justice and for all members of a targeted group. In the specific case of India, reservation policies for elected office have been designed in a manner that promotes integration rather than representation. She suggests that we should expect effects on political participation and recognition, not on redistribution. Additionally, as effects in society are mediated by effects at the elite level, we are more likely to observe changes in outcomes for elected SC politicians themselves, with potentially more moderated positive effects for SC voters.

To test these expectations, Jensenius marshals a substantial collection of constituency- and sub-constituency-level data in 15 major states. She does this by through the three forms of social justice, for both politicians and voters, primarily over the period 1974 to 2007. During this period, the assignment of reserved constituencies across India’s states remained constant. In order to make the strongest possible inferences, she evaluates outcomes across not only the full set of constituencies in these states, but also a smaller set of matched constituencies. This offers the closest possible approximation to the random assignment of reservations.

The magnitude of work that went into creating these datasets, and their contribution to the broader public of India scholars, cannot be overstated (I am one of many who has already utilized a portion of these data in my own work). Jensenius’ meticulous efforts pay dividends that are evident immediately in the empirical chapters. In addition, she combines these quantitative data sources with rich insights from detailed and extensive qualitative work, based on substantial time in the field with Indian politicians. Is there a limitation to this work? Perhaps the lack of discussion in the main text about why she chose particular states, and how she identified politicians for interviews. These types of details would be quite useful for two reasons. First, for evaluating the generalisability of the qualitative insights; second, for guiding future researchers interested in using a similar methodology. Overall, however, this mixed-method approach offers a unique and much-needed look into the lives and work of Indian legislators.

The Speaker, Lok Sabha, Smt. Meira Kumar proposing Vote of Thanks during the Meeting in Honour of President of United States of America, Mr. Barack Obama in the Central Hall of Parliament House, in New Delhi on November 8, 2010. Source: Public.Resource.Org/Flickr.

The empirical analyses are organized according to the main categories of the conceptual framework, alternating between effects on elites and on the general public. This structure works quite well for comparing outcomes, though I think Jensenius could have been even more explicit about returning to the framework and the existing expectations in the literature in each chapter. Because the findings are often contrary to what a casual observer of such policies might expect, it is worth emphasizing the areas in which findings do depart from such expectations.

Overall, the key finding of the book, as hinted above, is that reservation policies for Indian state legislators have their most striking effects on legislators themselves, rather than the general public. SC politicians become substantially better represented within legislatures—by default due to the reservations—and are nominated across all of the major parties. However, this effect generally does not extend beyond reserved constituencies. SC legislators have gained political skills and increased their likelihood of rerunning for office and gaining cabinet positions, though not to the same extent as legislators from general constituencies. Further, SC legislators have faced substantially reduced forms of discrimination, with interviewees often noting that people would not dare to treat them in the discriminatory manner historically experienced by SC individuals. Yet, for the most part, these same outcomes are not experienced by SC voters in reserved constituencies, compared to their peers in general constituencies. They do not feel better represented by their co-ethnics, they have not fared better as measured by socio-economic indicators, and they experience more limited reductions in discrimination, compared to their representatives. This does not mean that the status of SCs in the general public has not improved over this period, but we cannot attribute any observed improvements directly to the presence of reservations for SCs in the state legislatures.

Beyond this important overall finding, I want to note a few other insights that emerge from the empirical analysis. First, Jensenius highlights a recent trend by political parties in India—nominating women in SC reserved constituencies. She notes that this may be due in part to an expectation that reservations for women may be imposed at some point in the near future. Even if this is not the case, the shift in reservations does suggest that parties are responding to some pressure to nominate more women, but they are doing so by placing women in SC reserved seats. As a result, as she notes, female SC candidates are displacing male SC candidates, rather than ‘general caste’ male candidates. Elite non-SC male politicians thereby limit the distributive effects of changes in nomination patterns by retaining the largest possible portion of seats for themselves. The implications of this strategy for our thinking about the role of women in Indian politics are worth exploring in greater detail.

Second, Jensenius employs a unique and much-needed analysis of cabinet nominations. Through an evaluation of cabinets across all of the states in her analysis over 30 years (and an even more detailed examination of all cabinet posts in Uttar Pradesh over the same period), she highlights the general allocation of postings to SCs was to less prominent (and lucrative) postings, though the quality of postings has improved over time. This shows not only that SCs are not yet on par with their peers in terms of cabinet positions, as Jensenius notes, but also that, again, non-SC politicians are strategically retaining for themselves posts that are likely to offer them the greatest monetary and other resources for furthering their personal status and political careers.

Mayawati, Uttar Pradesh’s first female chief minister from a scheduled caste.

Finally, and perhaps more optimistically, Jensenius identifies an important trend in the political skills of SC legislators. In an analysis of turnout in reserved and non-reserved constituencies, she shows that while turnout did drop in reserved constituencies just after reservations were instated, this gap narrowed over time. Drawing on survey evidence, she suggests that lower turnout is not due to voter discontent with their position in a reserved constituency, but rather with the skill of SC politicians, or lack thereof, in mobilizing individuals to vote. As politicians in reserved constituencies gained skills over time, they, like their peers in non-reserved constituencies, have been able to mobilize voters and thereby improve turnout levels. This is one particularly nice example of the dynamics highlighted in earlier parts of the book, in which SC politicians have substantially improved in their ability to function as legislators.

In closing, I’d like to highlight the need for continued research on two possible additional effects of reservations on caste-based discrimination in the general population. First, while Jensenius considers the risk of backlash from reservations, there is little discussion in the text of violence as a particular form of backlash. It would be useful to extend the discussion of discrimination to forms violence that have historically been inflicted on scheduled castes, so as to understand whether or not there have been improvements, or worsening, in conditions of violence not measured here.

Second, Jensenius’ findings at times hint at differential effects within the scheduled caste population, as individuals from certain castes acquire political office at potentially higher rates than those from others. Further exploration of the ways in which existing biases leak into the reservation system, thereby potentially increasing inequalities within the broadly defined group of scheduled castes, could offer important insights that build nicely on the foundation laid by Jensenius in this text.

Overall, this is an important book that forces us to redirect our expectations about the likely outcomes of affirmative action policies and, in so doing, to recognize the importance of institutional design in determining these outcomes. Reservations, in and of themselves, do not ensure the eradication of years of injustice against certain groups. In particular, reservations for political office designed in ways that encourage group integration, rather than representation, are likely to be limited in their effects on a number of dimensions. Yet, Jensenius’ work goes a long way in helping us to see how these types of policies may encourage changes that can directly benefit some individuals, while indirectly affecting the lives of many others.

Jennifer Bussell is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. Her research concerns the comparative politics of developing countries, with an emphasis on India. In her forthcoming book, Clients and Constituents: Political Responsiveness in Patronage Democracies, she examines the role of high-level politicians in providing non-partisan constituency service to citizens across India and the world.
For more research stories like this, find the rest of the South Asia Reading Group here.
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  1. MeBhi Neta

    Hello Sir!
    Great article! Although this is a sensitive matter to plug in, but we should agree, in our democracy, it is difficult and there isn’t 100% justice for scheduled groups by this kind of reservations in Politics.

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