From the beginning of 2016, when the suicide of Rohith Vemula triggered unrest in Hyderabad Central University, the Dalit question has repeatedly risen to the top of the dominant political discourse — after the flogging in Una, the arrest of Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad, the Koregaon Bhima rioting, and the nationwide protests following the changes in the SC/ST Act. As Lok Sabha elections approach and political realignments gain momentum, the Dalit question will gather increasingly greater momentum.
Social Justice through Inclusion: The Consequences of Electoral Quotas in India, by Francesca R Jensenius, a political scientist at the University of Oslo, looks at how electoral representation for Dalits through reservation has played out since 1952. It is the first major empirical study of the longterm consequences of reservation for Dalits in state Assemblies.
The book, which was published last year, uses data for 15 states, taken from Census 1971-2001, affidavits filed with the Election Commission on assets and qualifications up to 2007, an original election survey in UP in January 2013, and over 100 interviews with ministers, MLAs, pradhans, IAS officers, activists, and voters in 2010-11. The study explains that extrapolation from the latest 2011 Census data was not practicable, and data from the earlier Censuses were too significant to be discarded.
The book analyses three aspects of social justice — redistribution, political participation, and recognition — and concludes that electoral quotas for SCs have “opened the political arena to many who would otherwise have been excluded, have allowed them to gain experience and confidence, and seem to have contributed to making it less socially acceptable to discriminate” against Dalits in public.
Jensenius told The Indian Express that “Quotas are useful when there are strong stereotypes about who should be in power or very strong biases against a group, so that it is hard to be elected no matter how qualified one is. However, being elected with the help of a quota does not mean you have a mandate to act in any specific way in politics. Every individual has many identities and interests, and sharing a group identity does not mean sharing political convictions.”
We should not, therefore, “expect to see major political changes, nor material changes, resulting from quota policies”, Jensenius said. “The reserved seats for SCs in India have worked really well to prevent systematic exclusion, thereby helping to break down stereotypes and social barriers between groups. This is an amazing result, but we also shouldn’t expect more from them than that. If one wants political changes and material changes for a community, then one needs to change the political discourse, the agendas of the political parties in power.”
The chapter on constituencies observes that reserved constituencies have on average had lower polling figures, but since all candidates are Dalits, all parties are incentivised to speak of integrating Dalits on board. It finds that Dalits in reserved constituencies do not fare better than other social groups, but having a Dalit MLA does not, for that reason, result in a constituency faring worse the other constituencies. The system enables a comprehensive “integration” of the Dalit MLA into the system, with no ill-effects on the area’s non-Dalits.
“The quotas have had no detectable constituency-level effect on overall development or redistribution to SCs. The result 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,” says the book.