One of the most contentious issues in Indian politics even before it became a free country was the issue of electoral reservations for deprived caste groups. At that time, any attempt at advancing the interests of any sub-section of Indian society was viewed with suspicion by nationalists of the Congress party. The father of the Indian Constitution, B.R. Ambedkar, however, differed from the mainstream thinking on this, and consistently argued that the Indian government, with the best of motives, will not be able to do much to address the grievances of Dalits unless it had Dalit representation.

“We feel that nobody can remove our grievances as well as we can, and we cannot remove them unless we get political power in our own hands," said Ambedkar in one of the sittings of the round table conferences held in 1930 in London to decide the agenda for political reform in India. “No share of this political power can evidently come to us so long as the British government remains as it is. It is only in a Swaraj Constitution that we stand any chance of getting the political power into our own hands, without which we cannot bring salvation to our people."

Gradually, people came around to Ambedkar’s view. Since 1950, through Article 332 of the Constitution, there have been political quotas for scheduled castes (SCs) and scheduled tribes (STs).

But have the disadvantaged groups residing in the reserved constituencies benefited from the quotas?

A new paper to be published in American Economic Journal: Applied Economics by political scientist Francesca Jensenius of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs looks into this issue and finds that there are no discernible quota effects on development in the reserved state assembly constituencies.

This is not the first piece of evidence to suggest political quotas may not be effective in directly helping the so-called backward classes. In a 2011 paper, economists Nishith Prakash of the University of Connecticut and Aimee Chin of the University of Houston measured the impact of reservations on the incidence of poverty and found that for SCs, there’s no visible change in headcount ratio (fraction of poor in the population) or poverty gap (how far a person is from the poverty line).

Using data for 16 major states in the country, Chin and Prakash found that reserving assembly seats for SCs did not lead to any significant change in poverty between 1960 and 1992. However, reservation for STs did reduce the poverty rates as well as the intensity of poverty.

Another way of looking at this problem would be to examine whether the provision of public goods has improved over time in reserved constituencies. A 2014 study by Yogesh Uppal of Youngstown State University and Brian Min of the University of Michigan tracked the change in rural electrification in 15 major states from 1992 to 2008 and found that, on average, villages in reserved constituencies did not fare better or worse than the unreserved ones. However, they also note a high degree of geographical variation. States such as Gujarat, Bihar and Odisha, on the one hand, saw electrification rates higher for villages in reserved constituencies than those in the unreserved assembly seats. On the other hand, in states such as Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Haryana, villages in reserved constituencies received less electricity.

They conjecture that the difference lies in the mechanism through which reservation works. If reservation induces greater political participation, the delivery of public goods is much better.

Jensenius compiles a dataset for more than 3,000 state assembly constituencies in 15 major states and focuses on six development measures: literacy rate, employment rate, share of agricultural labourers in the workforce, electricity, availability of medical facilities in villages, and availability of communication channels such as phone or post. Had reservation had any impact on these outcomes, we would expect a positive impact on literacy, amenities and village-level facilities and a negative impact on the share of agricultural labourers. The paper finds no such effects.

It could be that the SC or ST representative prioritizes redistribution via some other schemes. Harvard University economist Rohini Pande, in her 2003 paper on political quotas, argued that while SC reservation led to a rise in job quotas for the group, ST reservation led to greater spending on localized housing schemes.

One possible reason why reservations haven’t been welfare-enhancing is the manner in which top leadership of political parties—composed mostly of non-SC and ST politicians—control ticket distribution, which makes it difficult for the member of the legislative assembly (MLA) to pursue interests favouring the disadvantaged sections.

Jensenius conducted interviews with a number of Dalit MLAs in the country. In one of these interviews, she notes, “An SC politician in Himachal Pradesh claimed that he had wanted to focus his campaign on working for SC interests, but that his party refused to let him run until he changed the campaign platform to follow the party line. A senior SC politician in Himachal Pradesh argued that SC politicians, in fact, tend to do less for SCs than other politicians because they are scared of being branded as too SC by both parties and voters."

Branding matters in politics as much as it does in business, if not more. Consider the caste-based mockery surrounding Jitan Ram Manjhi, a former chief minister of Bihar, in his own office, as reported by The Caravan.

“Suddenly, a small mouse scurried through the hall. A few men laughed, others suppressed giggles—and everyone present (in the waiting area of the chief minister’s office) immediately knew why. As the chuckles subsided, the joke was whispered around: when Manjhi—who comes from the Musahar Dalit sub-caste, traditionally associated with rat-catching—took his seat in the state capital, ‘he must have brought the rats from his village’."

All these observations point to one important fact: social norms are rigid and they matter a lot. Success of political quotas is thus contingent on the perception about SCs and STs.

But could the lack of development in reserved constituencies also reflect the lack of merit among representatives of such constituencies?

Jensenius is quite clear in repudiating that view: “...as one of the key arguments against group representation in India and across the world is that it reduces overall political efficacy by bringing inexperienced or weak politicians to power, the findings in this paper can serve as an example that this fear may be exaggerated."

Jensenius points out that although there are no discernible effects on the development of reserved constituencies, at an aggregate level, the socio-economic gap between SCs and non-SCs has been shrinking rapidly over the past few decades. “It is important to note that the no-impact findings at the constituency level in this paper do not in any way preclude that the shrinking gap between SCs and others is the result of an overall equilibrium effect of SCs holding many positions of power," she writes.

Finally, there is some evidence to suggest that electoral reservations seem to be changing precisely those social norms that have been so difficult to change for so long.

A 2014 study by Dartmouth College political scientist Simon Chauchard showed that despite the persistence of negative stereotypes, the election of a Dalit sarpanch in villages across Rajasthan had contributed to a decline in hostility towards Dalits, opened avenues for greater inter-caste interaction, and led to a fall in untouchability practices.

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