The present system reserves certain constituencies in the elections for candidates from the Scheduled Castes. All the voters from that constituency — whether SC/ST or Upper Castes — have to select among the SC/ST candidates from that seat. Dr B R Ambedkar was afraid that in this system, only such Dalits would be elected who will toe the line of the upper castes or who promote the interests of the upper castes. In his essay, Emancipation of the Untouchables, he wrote: “It is common experience that the representative prefers the interests of his class to that of his voters. And why should it be otherwise? There is a homely saying that man’s skin sits closer to him than his shirt…The proposals for occupational and functional representation furnish proof that there is a great body of opinion against the system of territorial constituencies.” But, Dr Ambedkar had agreed to reservations in joint electorates under the pressure of Gandhi undertaking a fast unto death.
A handful of Dalits are co-opted in the mainstream in this dispensation, as was feared by Dr Ambedkar. These handful of Dalits promote the interests of the upper castes because their personal interests such as bribes or commissions are largely controlled by the upper castes. For example, a Dalit MP is happy with the money he receives via MPLADS and is content to leave questions of vital interest to the Dalits in the cold storage. The main issues that are relevant for Dalits — such as land reforms, economic policies to promote generation of jobs, restrictions on job-eating technologies, speedy justice and extortion of the poor by the government employees — have not been placed on the nation’s agenda. Naturally there is resentment in the Dalit community.
Successive governments have decided to expand reservations in educational institutions to diffuse this resentment. Just as a bad doctor administers yet higher doze of antibiotics to a patient who is not responding to lower doze till the patient dies; likewise our governments are expanding the same reservations which are not solving the main problem of bread and butter of the Dalits. Reservations in elections and government jobs have only become a ruse to co-opt the Dalit leaders. Hence, reservations are being expanded, though they are fundamentally futile.
This policy is doubly harmful. On one hand, the quality of governance and education suffers. On the other hand, the basic problems of the Dalits remain unattended. It should be admitted, however, that a few Dalits do benefit from this dispensation. There was nothing for the Dalit earlier. Reservations have helped some to rise, which is good. But, it still does not solve the problem of bread and butter for the majority of Dalits.
It is time that we re-look at the proposal for separate electorates for Dalits as wanted by Dr Ambedkar. It is more likely that representatives elected from exclusively Dalit constituencies will be more accountable to the voters.
As said above, the present system requires all voters from a reserved constituency to select among the SC/ST candidates from that seat. The representative elected is free to promote the interests of any class that he wishes. He is elected by all the voters and accountable to all the voters, hence he promotes the interests of all the voters — not the Dalits. This problem can be solved by making separate constituencies on the basis of occupations. For example, an MP elected from a constituency of agricultural labour will necessarily have to promote the interests of agricultural labour, otherwise the voters will not elect him the next time. A representative elected exclusively from a constituency of agricultural labour will be bound to promote the interest of agricultural labour alone. The majority of people in the country fall into the categories of petty businessmen, agricultural labour and small farmers. These three constituencies may account for about 90 percent of the voters. It will not be possible for these MPs to ignore the interests of the petty businessmen, agricultural labour and small farmers as is being done presently.
The dilemma is whether to make these separate constituencies on the basis of birth-caste or on the basis of present occupation. Dr Ambedkar had demanded separate constituencies based on birth-caste. The problem here is that a person is forever locked into his birth-caste. A son of cobbler IAS officer, who has graduated from IIM, will still cast his vote and contest elections from the constituency of cobblers. Another problem is of creamy layer. It is often seen that Dalit officers are anxious to join the upper caste and look down upon their caste-brothers. Their personal interests are served if their caste-brothers remain backward, so that the facilities earmarked for their caste can be more easily appropriated by their family without competition from new claimants.
We should, therefore, consider making separate electorates on the basis of present occupation instead of birth-caste. A person born in the caste of cobblers, but earning his livelihood as government servant should be removed from the former constituency and placed in the latter. No person will then be locked into his birth-caste for generations. The problem of creamy layer, too, will be solved. Presently, an IAS officer born in the family of cobblers can avail of the benefits earmarked for cobblers for successive generations. This is possible because he changes his profession but continues to be classified according to his birth-caste. This problem will not arise in occupational constituencies. After becoming an IAS officer, his family will be placed in the constituency of government servants and deprived of benefits earmarked for the constituency of cobblers.
The problem in occupational constituencies is that upper caste persons can become member of occupational constituencies such as those of cobblers. A Thakur can become representative of cobblers. A new creamy layer of upper caste persons can be formed in all occupational constituencies. This problem cannot be denied. But, such upper caste person will still be accountable to the cobblers who have elected him.
The government will then be forced to make economic policies that enable the majority of voters to earn their daily bread with respect. Time has come to make separate occupational constituencies where the representatives are forced to promote the interests of the voters. The present system of electing Dalits by all the voters must be abandoned.
The writer is a formerly Professor of Economics at IIM Bangaluru.