Hugo Gorringe & Suryakant Waghmore
In a recent interview with The Hindu1, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar's grandson Prakash Ambedkar suggested the abolition of political reservation for the Scheduled Castes (SCs) "as the people have started voting for Dalit candidates in elections without any bias"' (The Hindu, 9 Oct 2014). In this, and other aspects of the interview, Prakash Ambedkar displays a welcome and refreshing willingness to address thorny issues and offer innovative ways of thinking about caste discrimination in contemporary India. Without such analysis and the continual revisiting of taken-for-granted ways of doing things, movements can sediment, lose their vitality and even defend ineffective or inefficient means of achieving social change simply because 'that is how it has always been done'.
Prakash Ambedkar's intervention in debates around reservation are important in another respect too: they carry weight because of who he is and his heritage. Dalit movements often defend constitutional provisions because they were 'delivered by Ambedkar' not because they are necessarily the best instruments of change. As Ambedkar's grandson, Prakash can (potentially at least) question these without being subject to claims that he is anti-Dalit or anti-Ambedkar. Whilst we welcome debates on these questions, however, Prakash Ambedkar's comments, as reported in the newspaper at least, lack depth and data. It is in the hope of prompting a more informed discussion, therefore, that this piece is offered.
Like Prakash, we have reservations about the existing provision of political reservation for the Scheduled Castes. Unlike him, however, we are not so sanguine about the elimination of caste bias from the electoral process. Let us start by assessing his position. 'Political reservation should be done away with' he argues, 'because voting for a Dalit candidate is not a big issue now'. It is certainly true that many non-Dalits vote for SC candidates, but of course this claim needs to be tempered by the fact that only Scheduled Caste candidates can stand in reserved constituencies meaning that others have the choice between endorsing an SC candidate or not voting at all. Not surprisingly, most NOTA (None of the above) votes are cast in constituencies reserved for SC and STs and points to non-Dalit discomfort in voting for seats reserved for Dalits (and Adivasis)2. Of more importance, thus, is the fact that significant numbers of non-SCs also vote for 'Dalit' political parties. The success of the Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh, for instance, would have been inconceivable without the votes of non-Dalit castes for Dalit and Non-Dalit candidates.
Crucially, however, the BSP is an exception rather than the rule. Prakash Ambedkar rightly suggests that we cannot take the BSP as a benchmark. His reasoning is that: "Maharashtra has 13 percent Dalit population which is not a winning vote percentage. A Dalit leader here has to take other groups along with him. In UP, the Dalit politics starts with 24 percent vote share and ends at 32 percent which is a winning equation." Let us take both of the key points articulated here in turn: if, as Prakash asserts, there is no caste bias in voting, why is the fact that Dalit leaders need to reach out to others in Maharashtra seen as such a big obstacle here? Secondly, one may find a similar vote share in other states such as Tamil Nadu where the BSPs success has proved impossible to emulate. It is not numbers alone, we contend, that matter here.
The three key questions we would like to ask Prakash are as follows: firstly, how often are SC candidates selected to stand in general constituencies by mainstream parties? Put another way, were SC reservations abolished, how often would voters get the opportunity to elect Dalit candidates? Secondly, how often do SC candidates win elections in an open seat? In Tamil Nadu it is possible to count the number of such instances since Independence on the finders of one hand! Prakash's innovation, thus, presumes that the electorate do not share the biases that their political leaders clearly demonstrate in their selection of candidates. Finally, what have politicians elected from reserved constituencies succeeded in doing? Some have raised their voices on issues of caste discrimination, some have campaigned against manual scavenging and other practices, and all have served to render Parliament that much more representative of the population as a whole.
Many however – and this is where our concerns with reservations arise – have remained silent on issues of caste exclusion. They have represented their political parties rather than the Scheduled Castes. It was in anticipation of such an outcome that Ambedkar initially championed the cause of separate electorates. Following violence against Dalit voters in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, former Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (Liberation Panther Party) MLA, Ravikumar, harked back to Ambedkar in arguing that 'separate electorates are the only alternative if genuine Dalit representatives are to be elected' (Venomous Touch, 2009: 207). Following more recent electoral battles in which Dalits have backed the VCK in significant numbers without gaining any seats, Ravikumar has joined calls for electoral reform. Much before Ravikumar, Kanshi Ram (now portrayed as one of the BJP's Dalit symbols) organised Poona Pact Dhikkar rallies (Down with Poona Pact) and published Chamcha Age (Era of Stooges) in 1982 to mark fifty years of Poona pact. The historic Ambedkar-Gandhi clash was reconstructed by Kanshi Ram to explain the political exclusion of Dalits through reservations and the new era of 'chamchas'.
The truth of the matter is that the combination of first past the post and political calculations about caste conspire to mean that SC electoral representatives cannot afford to be committed to Dalit cause in any serious form. What the current form of reservations does do, however, is ensure that all parties have to field SC candidates and pay at least 'touch' service to SC concerns. The founders of the Constitution had well foreseen the limitations of reserving seats in legislatures for SC and STs. Unlike reservation in government jobs and education, the provision of reserved seats in the legislature wassubject to a constitutional time limit. The Constitution provides that such reservations should expire after ten years, but mainstream parties have united to back an extension of political reservations every decade.
Prakash Ambedkar seems to be making a meaningful plea for change, but one based on misplaced assumptions. To scrap political reservations on the basis that 'caste bias in voting has declined' only suggests that Prakash Ambedkar is even further detached from the grassroots than we thought.This would work best in a context where existing parties routinely place SC candidates in general constituencies or promote them to senior positions and in an electoral system that was not stacked against small parties. Political reservations for SCs are not perfect and we would welcome a debate on their relevance and utility. As can be seen in the above arguments, however, that debate requires analysis of political institutions and parties and their relationship with caste rather than the blithe assertion that voters are now caste blind.
Senior Lecturer in Sociology, University of Edinburgh. He is author of Untouchable Citizens (Sage, 2005) and articles on caste, violence and politics.
Suryakant Waghmore is Associate Professor and Chairperson of the Centre for Environment, Equity and Justice, in the School of Social Work at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. He is author of 'Civility against Caste: Dalit Politics and Citizenship in Western India' (Sage 2013) and articles on Dalits and Development.
Cartoon by Unnamati Syama Sundar.