Electoral Reservation: Is it right for democracy?

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In Indian elections to the Lok Sabha, certain constituencies are reserved for members of either the Scheduled Castes (SC) or Scheduled Tribes (ST) in an aim to rectify injustices imposed by the Caste system. The idea is that, by ensuring these ST/SC people seats, their voices are given a chance to direct policy through ensured representation.

The Indian elections to the Lok Sabha work on a First Past the Post single member plurality system, apart from the two nominees from the Anglo-Indian community. In India the SC population is, as of the 2001 census, around 16.2 per cent [1] while the number of reserved seats in the Lok Sabha for the SCs is 15.4 per cent. [2] This means that 84 seats in the Lok Sabha of a total of 545 are exclusively held for an SC. One main issue with this reservation in terms of representation is not that the SCs are under-represented (the two percentages are actually close), but  that the SC population is not concentrated in specific areas [3] and this spread means that they have reservation in constituencies with many people who are not of the SC lists. It is for this reason that scholars such as Barry and Sowell write that electoral reservation actually ingrains the Caste system. This is because SC reservation focuses on inequalities such as ‘untouchability’, thus reminding the population that is not on the SC/ST list of any perceived differences that led to the unequal treatment in the first place.

In other words by focussing on the fact that there is a need to protect the ‘lower’ castes, inequality becomes part of an everyday consciousness and so becomes ingrained. [4] This is a view that holds that, within democracy, rights of minorities should be protected in law rather than through concessions. However, alongside the arguments of Barry and Sowell there is evidence suggesting that the electoral reservation system is not beneficial for Indian Democracy.

It is first of all clear that electoral reservation in recent years has led to an increase in coalition governments. This is because of the guarantee that 84 seats in the Lok Sabha must go to a member of the SC population. As a result there has been an increase in the number of political parties that cater for the SC population, for instance the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Utter Pradesh. For this reason it is likely that in India there will ever be a single party government again. [5] This creates instability for the government who have to deal with internal tensions while trying to run the country. For instance the Government at the moment has a majority of 16, which leaves the Indian National Congress reliant on the BSP, a regional caste based party, who have 21 seats. This gives crucial power to a minority group of just one state and has created fears that they could call an early election. This is an issue as the cost of an election is prohibitive and many parties will be unable to compete effectively, [6] while the power given to a regional party over national interests creates obvious issues as well.

The final point to be made relates to the growth of power at the centre of the Indian state. Due to the anti-defection legislation of 2003 it is not possible for individual members of the Lok Sabha to vote against their party without fear of being disqualified from the legislature. [7] For this reason it does not matter how many SC members of Parliament there are as they ultimately have to rubber stamp what the government wants. This is less of an issue in the caste-based parties in government who will be driving through an agenda of their own but it does create an issue for SC members of the national parties, such as Congress, who will have to vote in the way that the party leadership wants them to vote, theoretically even if this is against their own Caste interests. Thus, the system of electoral reservation in this case is redundant.

As a result of this there is no reason for the electoral reservation system. There is a convincing argument that it actually ingrains the caste system while at the same time it creates instability through the need to form coalition governments with regional parties, who will have little electoral incentive for politics on the national stage as it will not bring benefits to their constituencies. Finally, the existence of the anti-defection legislation and its theoretical implications creates a situation whereby the system becomes redundant, especially in the national parties whose leaderships tend to belong to the ‘higher’ castes. There must be a better way for the Indian state to deal with the inequality created through the caste system as it has been shown that the system of electoral reservation is inadequate.

Article by Sam Seager. Edited by George Richards.

Further reading:

[1] Government of India Census data, ‘http://www.censusindia.gov.in/Census_Data_2001/India_at_Glance/scst.aspx’, (27th September 2012).

[2] K. Adeney and A. Wyatt, Contemporary India (Basingstoke, 2010), p. 85.

[3] A. McMillan, Standing at the Margins: Representation and Electoral Reservation in India, (New Delhi, 2005), p. 8.

[4] A. McMillan, Standing at the Margins: Representation and Electoral Reservation in India, (New Delhi, 2005), pp. 5 – 6.

[5] K. Adeney and A. Wyatt, Contemporary India (Basingstoke, 2010), p. 140.

[6] Dean Nelson, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/india/9551239/Indian-government-dealt-blow-by-partner-resignation.html (19th September 2012).

[7] K. Adeney and A. Wyatt, Contemporary India (Basingstoke, 2010), p. 132.