Social Justice Matters | Is the electoral system in India unjust to Dalits?

Indian elections are a remarkable feat for a new democracy. Yet, the country’s marginalised castes continue to get a raw deal when it comes to their representation, and the system of reserved constituencies is flawed at best
One of the most important consequences of the universal adult franchise was the addition of millions of voters from marginalised castes who likely got added to the electoral rolls (AFP) PREMIUM
One of the most important consequences of the universal adult franchise was the addition of millions of voters from marginalised castes who likely got added to the electoral rolls (AFP)
Updated on Nov 04, 2021 02:34 PM IST
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October 25, 2021 marked 70 years of India’s first general election – a watershed event that cemented India’s place as the world’s largest democracy and vindicated the faith of the founders in guaranteeing every citizen the vote.

The successful implementation of universal adult franchise between October 25, 1951 and February 21, 1952 showed that property, education or income were not rational criteria to deny people the right to choose their representatives and rulers. It also belied the criticism of many colonial and imperial commentators that democracy was not the white man’s preserve — a point driven home in a special series run in the Hindustan Times last week.

One of the most important consequences of the universal adult franchise was the addition of millions of voters from marginalised castes who likely got added to the electoral rolls after the British-era restrictions of income and property were removed.

Data on the jump in Scheduled Caste (SC) voters is sketchy, but given the evidence of sociological and official reports on the economic destitution of SCs, it is not far-fetched to imagine that these groups were the most disadvantaged by voting restrictions, and, therefore, benefited immensely from franchise.

Of course, this was at the core of BR Ambedkar’s idea to push for universal franchise. The kernel of this idea was evident in his submission before the Southborough Commission in 1919, when he questioned the rationale behind denying the vote to under-represented and underprivileged communities.

In his speeches before the Constituent Assembly, delivered roughly three decades later, it is evident that India’s first law minister viewed political equality as a pivotal constituent of the life of dignity and respect that he envisaged for the country’s most marginalised communities.

Has that happened? Or has the “life of contradictions” that Ambedkar warned of on January 26, 1950, overwhelmed the project for political equality for Dalits, especially in the sphere of electing representatives? It’s a bit of both – and that remains one of the harshest, and little told, truths about the Indian elections.

A key feature of the 1951 election was joint electorates – unlike British India, no community has separate electorates to choose their own community representatives. The joint electorates, Mahatma Gandhi argued, were important for national unity. Ambedkar, on the other hand, thought that the denial of separate electorates — a decision formalised in the 1932 Poona Pact — was aimed at refusing the depressed classes a genuine chance at electing their true representatives.

So what happened in reality? Between 1951 and 1961, India had single-member constituencies for the so-called general population, and double-member constituencies for seats with a SC member to be chosen.

In these double-member constituencies, one member would be chosen like in any usual election, and a second member was chosen who could only belong to an SC group. The electorate for both would be the same — all eligible voters.

The rules of voting were complex — voters had to drop their ballot for the first member and the second member separately, in differently marked and coloured boxes — and often, many votes were cancelled, because people would put all their votes in the same box. Even the election report of the 1951 polls by Sukumar Sen, the first election commissioner, notes that voting and counting in such double-member constituencies were cumbersome. Raja Sekhar Vundru’s 2017 book, Ambedkar, Gandhi and Patel: The Making of India’s Electoral System, notes that Ambedkar filed an election complaint about the unusually high number of voided ballots after his shock loss in the Bombay North seat in 1951.

India abolished double-member constituencies in 1961, but the principle of reserving seats for SCs was not altered. Now, some single-member constituencies were set aside for SCs. In effect, this meant that SC populations had very little control over the choice or election of SC members, because in rarely any constituency were Dalits 50% or more of the electorate.

Today, in many reserved constituencies, Dalits form 20-30% or thereabouts of the population. The overwhelming majority in such seats remain with other castes, who have no incentive to elect a strong Dalit leader, especially in caste-polarised societies. Moreover, the SC candidates are dependent on upper-caste support for their election — ironically, they can do without Dalit support in a SC-reserved seat, but not without the support of the so-called higher castes. Hence, parties have no motivation to nominate strong SC candidates, who may antagonise an upper-caste dominated electorate. Higher castes, who already wield power in Indian social and political arenas, also hold decisive sway in reserved constituencies.

This teaches us two things. One, reserved constituencies that were first devised as a way to undercut caste hegemony in politics and help boost representation of Dalits is a flawed tool. Yes, Dalit representatives enter assemblies and Parliament but the power to make or break their electoral fortunes still remains with upper-caste communities.

Two, any understanding of the political inclination of Dalits that is based on reserved constituencies is flawed. There is no real metric to understand, large-scale, how Dalit folks are voting, and what their political choices are, or how they differ from caste Hindu communities. Any analysis of Dalit preferences based on reserved constituencies is doomed to reproduce the same upper-caste biases that are inherent in the Indian polity. It is for similar reasons that winner trends in reserved constituencies are not largely different from other seats in assembly or general elections.

Indian elections are a remarkable feat for a new democracy. Yet, the country’s marginalised castes continue to get a raw deal when it comes to their representation, and the system of reserved constituencies is flawed at best.

Of course, the answer is not the elimination of political reservation but its fine-tuning. In what ways can marginalised castes be assured of better and more meaningful representation that is autonomous and not controlled by other groups?

In this lies a possible direction for Indian electoral machinery to evolve.

dhrubo.jyoti@htlive.com

The views expressed are personal

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Dhrubo works as an edit resource and writes at the intersection of caste, gender, sexuality and politics. Formerly trained in Physics, abandoned a study of the stars for the glitter of journalism. Fish out of digital water.

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