The Elements of Democracy Politics

5 Things You Should Know About Political Reservation


Equal representation is one of the most fundamental features of a democracy. However, minority groups like tribes, women, religious and ethnic minorities in many democracies around the world have felt underrepresented in their government. The idea of representation is diluted when the people cannot identify with those representing them in their government, whether that is at a local level or in Parliament. Since India’s democracy is a relatively new one, we had the opportunity to fix the mistakes we found in other democracies while designing ours. And while we still haven’t covered all groups (like women), we do have a reservation system for the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.

We’ve made a list of everything you may need to know about how this system of parliamentary political reservation works and it impacts on our democratic process.

The selection of reserved constituencies is done state-wise. The number of constituencies reserved for SC/STs is proportional to their population in a given state. For example, Maharashtra has a total of 48 Lok Sabha seats. Considering that the SC population in Maharashtra is 11.6% and the ST population is 9.2%, proportionally, the state has 5 seats reserved for SC candidates and 4 seats reserved for candidates from scheduled tribes. Exactly which constituencies are to be reserved is decided by picking those with comparatively large proportions of SC/STs.

The states of Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal have the most SC constituencies, 17 and 10 respectively and Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand have the most ST constituencies and 6 and 5. In order to keep things fair, one important feature of a reserved constituency is that only candidates from the enlisted minority caste or tribe can stand for election. That way, do ‘disadvantaged’ candidate has to compete with an ‘advantaged’ one. The competition only remains between candidates from a similar social status. The entire electorate still castes their vote, regardless of their individual social status. Therefore, in reserved constituencies, even members from non-reserved groups have to cast their votes to a candidate belonging to a minority group.

While selected through a similar process, reserved constituencies for the parliamentary election and assembly elections can differ. This is significant only because it makes it easier to compare voter behavior in these constituencies when they are reserved for some elections and not for others. This way, we can actually analyze if this whole system of political reservation is working or not.

While many other countries that have taken politically affirmative action like reservation in the Parliament face criticism that it discourages the electoral participation of non-disadvantaged groups driven by resentment, since India has had this system in place from the beginning, Indians from non-disadvantaged groups don’t seem to resent the system enough to not turn up to vote. This paper, found that the difference between voter turnout of people from non-disadvantaged groups in general constituencies and reserved constituencies is insignificant. Also, in reserved constituencies, thanks to more media focus on SC issues and candidate focus on SC-favorable policy, plus possible social affiliations between the candidates and the voters, the voter turnout of those from disadvantaged groups increases in reserved constituencies as compared to general ones by around 5%. All of this leads to political awareness of the electorate, especially minorities who may otherwise find themselves on the fringes of policy and politics.

Like most cases of affirmative political action, India’s policy for political reservation was created at a time when there was noticeable discrimination, something our leaders hoped would decrease over time and eventually equal opportunity would be available without it being required. When that time came, this policy would be withdrawn. Citing this, many claim that the time to withdraw political reservation has come. While we know that political participation and awareness of SC/STs in these constituencies has increased, that doesn’t really translate into actual development. In most of these constituencies, the SC/ST voters are still a minority, they still live in poverty and underdevelopment and in some areas are still socially ostracized.

You might think that there is an element of habit-forming, like if someone votes in one election, they are likely to vote for the next one and the one after that. But that isn’t really true. According to this paper, people who voted in assembly elections, when their constituency was reserved, didn’t always vote again in the parliamentary elections when their constituency was in a general category.

In general, there are not enough studies about the effect of this reservation system, so it’s hard to say if it will have a lasting impact. But considering it’s doing some good in terms of political awareness but hasn’t finished the job in terms of social and economic development, maybe it’s worth it to keep it around for a little while longer.

People vote for the candidate who they think will have their back and look out for your needs and rights. In India, especially in reserved constituencies, this is usually based on 2 factors – caste ideology and policy. Caste ideology is obviously at the forefront of the election narrative. The press and political parties give more attention to SC issues and as a result, more SCs come out to vote, generally on caste lines. But for non-SC voters, ideology takes a back seat since either way an SC candidate wins. So they look at the parties the candidates are representing instead, a game changer considering non-SC voters are the majority even in reserved constituencies.

Let’s look at this through the example of UP in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. UP have the most reserved SC constituencies in India at 17, with the traditionally SC-supported parties like the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party and the major national parties the BJP and INC as contenders. In this case, even if 100% of the SC voters voted based on caste ideology, SP and BSP would not get a majority of the votes. In this case, according to this EPW paper, if voters had to choose between SC candidates based on the party they represent, they would pick right-wing parties that typically cater to upper-castes, in this case, the BJP. When voting happens like this – along caste lines – the outcome eventually leads to an increase in the caste-based divide and violence in those regions. So it’s no surprise that the states with the highest SC/ST populations are the same states that have high caste-based crime rates.

Like we said earlier, In India’s reserved constituencies, voting is usually based on 2 factors – caste ideology and policy. So, one way to avoid the caste-based divide could be to focus on policy. Bonus, if the policy is properly executed, maybe some of the discrimination and social and economic backwardness could be tackled as well. Instead of just appealing in terms of caste, if SC candidates and the parties they represented presented a platform of policies that would favor the entire population, they might win the votes of the majority and be able to uplift their own communities as well.

Before 2014, the Samajwadi Party had 10 reserved seats in Uttar Pradesh, while BJP had only 2. But during the campaign, BJP focused on policy for everyone like lowering crime rates and increasing women’s safety while ruling SP mostly banked on loyalty votes from SC voters. As a result, BJP won all 17 reserved seats in UP, as non-SC voters made their pick on party and policy lines. Now, at the end of the day, an SC leader is still the MP from that constituency, but he serves everyone. This is possibly the equity envisioned when political reservations were introduced.

This article is based on research conducted by Yuko Mori and Takashi Kurosaki for Economic and Political Weekly, a journal that conducts independent scholarship and critical inquiry.

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