A Dalit MP from Karnataka had to reason with priests in a village to let him in. They did not. Still, the BJP MP, A. Narayanaswamy, chose not to press charges because the village had voted for him in the 2019 elections.
The incident sparked an important debate not only about the persistence of caste untouchability in present-day India, but also raised questions about reserved constituencies, and how people – especially those not belonging to scheduled castes – feel and vote in reserved constituencies.
The Chitradurga MP, A. Narayanaswamy, was refused entry by residents of a village inhabited by the Golla OBC community because his presence would “pollute” and “bring misfortune” to them.
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Since 1961, India has had constituencies reserved for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe politicians to contest from. After the last delimitation in 2008, India now has 84 SC-reserved seats, and 47 ST-reserved seats.
Despite the remaining 412 seats being technically open to candidates of all castes, political parties have systematically given fewer and fewer tickets to SCs and STs in “general” seats, thereby ghettoising them to reserved seats only. Even though the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party might appear to give more tickets to SC candidates in general seats, it only does so in states other than Uttar Pradesh, the only state that it is effectively competitive in. When the stakes are high, the BSP just does the same as the Congress and the BJP. The official Election Commission data for 2019 is not yet available, but in 2014, just one SC MP won from a non-reserved seat – Sher Singh Ghubaya of the Akali Dal. (He won in 2009 as well).
(The situation is slightly different for STs; some seats, like those in Ladakh in Arunachal Pradesh, are ST-dominated but have not been reserved, leading parties to nominate ST candidates from those seats, who then win. There are around five ST MPs who win from “general” seats every year, including Union minister Kiren Rijuju and Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal, both from the BJP.)
The outcome of the election in a reserved seat is often used as shorthand for “how Dalits” voted; for example, the BJP winning 46 of 84 SC-reserved seats is explained as “Dalits preferring the BJP”. However, even though reserved seats are meant to have a concentration of the respective populations, this is especially not the case for SC constituencies, because, unlike STs, SCs are much more geographically spread out. As a result, SCs are a minority in all SC-reserved seats.
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Voter turnout in SC/ST seats
At the moment, there is little constituency-level demographic and electoral surveying. As a result, there is no publicly available data from the 2019 (or any other recent) election about how non-SC/STs voted in SC/ST-reserved seats. What exist are some clues.
Several studies have shown that turnout is lower in reserved constituencies than in general constituencies. (This despite SC turnout being higher in reserved than in general seats.) A plausible explanation could have been that this was because upper castes were less motivated to vote for SC candidates. However, political scientist Francesca Jensenius, associate professor of political science at the University of Oslo and a leading expert on the subject of electoral quotas, finds that this is not the case. “[T]he weaker networks and mobilisation capacity of SC politicians can explain much of the difference in turnout,” she writes in her 2017 book Social Justice Through Inclusion. As SC politicians have become better integrated into political parties, the gap in turnout has narrowed, she notes. In 2019, SC constituency turnout was higher than in general constituencies (but both were lower than in ST constituencies).
Then there is NOTA. The share of NOTA votes cast in reserved constituencies is always higher than it is in non-reserved constituencies, and 2019 was no exception. Here too, party workers have observed upper castes literally announcing that they would rather vote for no one than for a scheduled caste candidate, but the phenomenon has not been studied.
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Candidates in reserved seats
Finally, what do upper castes in reserved constituencies feel about their candidates, and who do they vote for? Jensenius has a number of insights from a voter survey she conducted in 2013 in Uttar Pradesh. Village elites were often critical of SC politicians, but the average non-SC voter was slightly less positive in her assessment of SC politicians than an SC voter. Moreover, those who lived in a village that had been reserved for a long time had a more positive view of SC politicians.
The evidence suggests that Narayanaswamy might be correct in his assessment that the Golla village voted for him; party politics plays a key role in reserved constituencies too.
Ravikumar, a Dalit MP from Villupuram, Tamil Nadu, from the VCK party, says he too experienced upper caste settlements refusing to allow him in when he was campaigning, and once there was stone-pelting at during campaign, injuring a party-worker. As an MP, he hasn’t yet experienced such casteism, he says. “But officials respond to Dalit MPs with distinct indifference,” he says.
Most SC politicians do not campaign or govern very differently from non-SC candidates, Jensenius found. “As most of their voters are non-SCs, most of the SC politicians I interviewed made it clear they saw themselves as representatives of their parties and their voters, not of their specific group,” Jensenius writes. As a result, there are no systematic differences for SCs in reserved and non-reserved constituencies, she finds.
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Votes as power
Is there hope for change over time? The evidence would suggest so, even if the motivating factor is less true reform and more the awe of power.
Dalit politicians interviewed by Jensenius reported that they still face discrimination and bias (including untouchability of the sort experienced by Narayanaswamy), but their status, education, power and money was providing them with some defence. In his book Why Representation Matters: The Meaning of Ethnic Quotas in Rural India, political scientist Simon Chauchard found that the election of an SC sarpanch did not change the dominant caste members’ stereotypes about Dalits, but it did change what they thought were acceptable and legal ways to interact with Dalits.
Last week, members of the Golla village invited the press and Narayanaswamy to return to their hamlet. It’s unlikely that anything but electoral politics could have enforced this turnaround.
The author is a Chennai-based data journalist. Views are personal.