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Can reserving seats ‘work’?

After the drama of elections is over,NGOs and the leaders of the women’s movement are likely to push for women’s reservations...

Written by Rikhil R. Bhavnani |
April 14, 2009 12:12:48 am

After the drama of elections is over,NGOs and the leaders of the women’s movement are likely to push for women’s reservations in our national and state legislatures. If the debate proceeds like those over most social justice issues in India,little of the discussion will be based on hard evidence.

This need not be the case,however. We already have 15 years of experience with women’s reservations in our local legislative bodies. Any discussion over whether to expand women’s reservations to the state and national levels should start with a hard look at whether that policy has worked at the local level.

What that evidence shows is remarkable. When women compete against men for an unreserved seat,a female candidate has a fivefold better chance of winning if her seat was reserved in the previous election cycle. (These are results,from a study by Bhavnani examining the impact of reservations in Mumbai’s 1997 municipal elections on the chances of women winning office in 2002 and were published recently in the American Political Science Review.)

Reservations guarantee a minimum representation of women in legislatures. For reservations to “work,” however,they need to achieve more than that minimum. The reservations policy is rationalised as a temporary measure,used to right historical wrongs until women can “take care” of themselves; reservations are put in place so that they can someday be removed. The policy’s success,therefore,hinges on its ability to continue boosting representation after they have lapsed.

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Assessing success in this is particularly important because the policy is so controversial. After all,despite intentions to the contrary,reservations are rarely withdrawn,making it difficult to analyse what happens once they are removed. Efforts to understand reservations are further complicated by the behaviour of incumbents,whose incentive is to implement reservations only in areas where target groups would anyhow do well. In those cases,simply comparing seats with and without reservations would not help us understand the role reservations play in the electoral success of the targeted group.

The municipal elections in Mumbai provided a unique opportunity to circumvent those obstacles. First,seats were reserved for women on a rotating basis: a group of seats were reserved for women in 1997 but not in 2002. Second,reserved seats were randomly chosen. This made the comparison of reserved and unreserved seats akin to comparing treatment and control groups in a medical trial. In this case,the only difference between the groups was whether or not they had been reserved for women in the previous election cycle; they were otherwise,on average,the same. We therefore know that all differences between these two groups were caused by reservations. This level of certainty is rare for a social scientific study.

The analysis of Mumbai’s election data shows that a woman’s chances of winning office,when competing against men for an unreserved seat,were quintupled when that seat had been reserved for women in the prior election. While women have an approximately 4 per cent chance of winning an election in seats that didn’t have reservations,their probability of winning jumped to 20 per cent for seats that had been reserved for women previously. Although a woman’s chances of winning are obviously greater when reservations are in place (a hundred per cent),the implementation — and rapid removal — of reservations greatly improves women’s chances of winning an election as compared to the status quo.

Why is this? By opening the door to women candidates,reservations introduce into politics women who are able to win elections even after reservations are withdrawn. Reservations also allow parties to “learn” that women can win elections. Indeed,parties are the main bottleneck for women coming to power. Boosting the representation of women in our legislatures must therefore involve convincing parties to nominate women for office.

Reservations set in motion a process that ensures the fairer representation of women even after reservations are removed. Our founding fathers seem to have been aware of this possibility. The electoral reservations that they provided were intended to have expired in 10 years,although they have been renewed multiple times since.

The results of this research create space for a third position between the fiercely pro- and anti-reservation camps. One can support reservations yet also advocate for their efficient withdrawal.

Bhavnani is a political scientist at Stanford University. This article was co-authored by Dustin B. Brown,a San Francisco-based attorney

express@expressindia.com

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