In January, India’s Parliament passed a constitutional amendment that would allow for a 10% quota for upper castes in educational institutes and government employment. The move ended a longstanding 50% cap on reservations, raising the total proportion of reservations in India to 60%. With the cap gone, a number of backward caste groups have raised demands to further increase the limit, with some politicians even arguing for quotas that are completely proportional to caste numbers.

Reservations for certain groups at 60% is an incredible, unprecedented system for any democracy. Yet, India is not just any other democracy. It may be based on the United Kingdom’s Westminster system but it has a number of unique characteristics – personal law, a federation made up of ethnic states, and most uniquely, an extensive system of caste reservations – factors that make it rather different from other majoritarian democracies.

The political science theory of consociationalism – which refers to a democratic system based on power sharing between elites from various groups – could explain India’s divergence from other democracies as well as the success of caste reservations in the country.

The theory of consociationalism

For a long time, intellectuals in the West thought that democracy was incompatible with diverse societies. One of the greatest liberal theorists, 19th-century British philosopher John Stuart Mill, for example, argued that “democracy is next to impossible” in multi-ethnic societies and “completely impossible in linguistically divided countries”.

In 1977, however, a new model of consociational democracy was developed by political scientist Arend Lijphart in order to explain the apparent success of multi-ethnic and polyglot countries such as Belgium, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. In this model, power was shared amongst elites from different social groups using the principal of collective rights. This was starkly different from winner-takes-all, majoritarian electoral systems (such as the United Kingdom), where individual rights were seen as primary.

Since then, the case of India – the starkest deviation from Mill’s thesis – has also been considered amongst academics as a case of consociationalism.

Sharing power amongst social groups

In a 1996 paper, Lijphart explained how India fitted his model of consociationalism. Governments in India are often formed using grand coalitions with ministers deliberately chosen to correspond to various religious, linguistic, ethnic and caste groups. Cultural autonomy is maintained using a variety of devices: linguistic states, separate personal laws and allowing minority education institutions. Proportionality is executed using the world’s largest system of affirmative actions, with caste groups having reserved blocs in legislatures, higher education and government jobs. Moreover, a minority veto exists in the Indian system where any measure seen as greatly harming a minority is often stymied – even if it has majority support. To illustrate this, Lijphart provides the example of Tamil Nadu effectively vetoing the adoption of Hindi as the sole official language of the Union government in 1965.

In a 2000 paper, academic Steven Wilkinson argued that while India was remarkably consociationalist under the British Raj – not only did legislatures have reserved seats, even electorates were split on a communal basis – the feature was rolled back in the first two decades after independence under the Congress party. Legislature seats reserved for Muslims, Sikhs and Christians were abolished. And while reserved seats for Dalits were retained, measures pushed by leaders such as BR Ambedkar to allow Dalit voters to have a special say in how these reserved legislators were elected were rejected by the Congress high command in the Constituent Assembly. Moreover, while reservations for Dalits and Adivasis in higher education and jobs existed on paper, they were barely implemented in the period after Independence. In 1963, 16 years into Nehru’s prime ministership, only 1.5% of top tier “Group I” employees in the Union government were Dalit or Adivasi. The only consociationalist progress during this period came in the form of linguistic states – although even this were conceded reluctantly by Nehru, his hand being forced by violent protests.

India after Nehru

Post Nehru, however, as the Congress weakened, populist pressures from below forced more power sharing. In 1979, the Mandal Commission, appointed by the first non-Congress Union government led by the Janata Party, recommended a massive increase in caste reservations by awarding quotas to “Other Backward Classes”. In 1990, another non-Congress government, led by VP Singh implemented the report. Moreover, Dalit and Adivasi reservations also started to be better implemented (although still below the legal threshold). In 1989, nearly 11% of “Group I” Union government employees were Dalits or Adivasi, up from 1.5% in 1963.

In addition, backward caste parties started to demand consociationalist representation of their own members rather than vote for upper caste politicians under the old Congress system. Kanshi Ram built up the Dalit-led Bahujan Samaj Party in the 1980s with the slogan, “Vote hamara raj tumhara, nahin chalega nahin chalega [Our vote and your rule, this will not do].” In the present-day, the caste composition of any cabinet is a crucial puzzle for any party to solve – a unique feature of India’s consociationalist system and unknown in other majoritarian democracies.

As these headlines in news websites show, fixing the caste compositions of governments is a major consociationalist feature of Indian democracy.
As these headlines in news websites show, fixing the caste compositions of governments is a major consociationalist feature of Indian democracy.

Linguistic minorities are represented using states and since Nehru, India’s federal nature has been greatly strengthened. The use of Article 356, which allows the Union government to dismiss an elected state government and rule the state directly from Delhi, was used almost at will till the 1970s, but rarely now. Moreover, the rise of state parties has further strengthened the consociationalist power sharing amongst linguistic groups. One outcome of this consociationalist power sharing is that states that represent minority languages (such as in South India) now have outsized representation in the Union Parliament as compared to Hindi states. In Uttar Pradesh, for example, one Lok Sabha MP now represents 25 lakh people. In Bihar, 26 lakh. In West Bengal, however, the number drops to 22 lakh. In Tamil Nadu, it is 18 lakh and in Kerala only 17 lakh. In effect, a Malayali has more than 1.5 times the representation of a Bihari in the Lok Sabha. The Union government fears that rejigging seats to correct this imbalance might anger the southern states.

Staying power

The one aspect of consociationalism that is the least developed in India is for religious communities – an almost expected response given Partition. Muslims in India, for example, are frequently underrepresented in legislatures, cabinets, higher education and government jobs.

Yet, even here there are distinct consociationalist features that run counter to a typical majoritarian democracy. Muslims have reservations under the Other Backward Class bracket with sub categories even being created for the community across the five southern states.

Moreover, even BJP-led Union governments have made no actual effort to remove personal laws, even if they opposed them when out of power – a consociationalist compromise quite similar to Nehru’s with linguistic states. In fact, if anything, the imposition of uniform laws that overrule traditional cultural norms has often seen a sharp backlash, as in the case of Nagaland in 2017, which successfully opposed a Central law that sought to reserve seats for women in local bodies. Earlier in 2012, a new marriage act for Sikhs was passed by Parliament, expanding India’s already intricate system of personal law.

With reservations at 60% and with demands from major political parties to make it a 100%, it is clear that the post-Nehru trend of increasing consociationalism will continue in Indian democracy.

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