The Constitution adopted by the independent India in 1950 created a democratic republic with a pledge to secure justice, liberty, equality and fraternity for all its citizens. In a model, invented and constructed by India alone, the Constitution provided universal adult franchise at one stroke. But realising democracy was not simply possible through political equality; it demanded social and economic equality as well. Dr B R Ambedkar had understood it at the very beginning of his political career, but he had equally realized that the way to achieve the latter two will necessarily have to cross through the political path.
It was with this realisation that soon after his appearance as a political leader at a conference of the ‘depressed classes’ in March 1927 where Ambedkar demanded the abolition of untouchability and the caste system, he started engaging with the electoral politics.
He realised that the recognition and representation of the voices of the “untouchables” in the electoral system that the colonial rulers were trying to put in place was very important. Thus, along with his fight for civil rights of the “untouchables”, he was constantly engaged in the question of how best they can be represented politically.
Ambedkar, as a Depressed Class representative of the Bombay Legislative Council, appearing before the Simon Commission in August 1928 clearly sought reserved seats if accompanied by adult franchise as the first option, failing which he sought for a separate electorate as the second option.
Since the electoral system that the British were following then was first past the post (FPTP) system, any arrangement of representation of the depressed classes in India was to be thought in the same framework. It was here that he had also raised the demand for certain safeguards in the Constitution regarding the education of the depressed classes and their entry into the public services.
The issue was further discussed at the Round Table Conferences in 1930 and 1931. It won’t be an exaggeration to say that Gandhi’s keen interest in the electoral system was only in reference to the kind of political demand made by Ambedkar for the “untouchables”.
In the past two decades, several studies have come around the idea of caste and representation, both theoretical and empirical, but this is the first attempt of understanding the issue of representation of dalits in the Indian democracy by engaging with the framework of electoral system. The author successfully tells that had Ambedkar not taken up the issue of representation of Dalits in the Indian electoral system and left it for Gandhi or the Indian National Congress, how difficult the journey would have been for them in the independent India.
The author shows how the Congress which had originally opposed the Simon Commission for not having a single Indian representation on the Commission had created its own Nehru Report without inviting Dalits for their opinion (page 14). More importantly, the author’s decision to not use Poona Pact in the title of the book is praiseworthy, because both the clarity and the intensity with which he has explained the negotiations of those six days that led to the making of the Poona Pact is remarkable.
While most of the scholars believe that Ambedkar’s interest in electoral system ended with the Poona Pact, this book takes painstakingly takes us through how Ambedkar continued to pursue the issue even in the Constituent Assembly. And it is here that the book’s contribution in bringing out the Ambedkar-Vallabhbhai Patel debate deserves special mention.
The readers will be delighted to read how upon a discussion on whether right to vote should be a fundamental right or not, Ambedkar argued vociferously for it while Patel opposed it (page 140). The author very clearly shows how right to vote not being a fundamental right allows voting being subjected to several conditions of education and sanitation in states of Rajasthan and Haryana.
It is interesting to read how Ambedkar fought with Patel in the Constituent Assembly to protect the reserved seats for the Scheduled Castes and finally won it.
The book very clearly argues that the experience of the current electoral mechanism of reserving constituencies for the Scheduled Castes has failed to address, represent, and protect the interest of those for whom the constituency has been reserved. There is a need for some reforms in the electoral mechanism.
One may contest that the suggested mechanism of qualified joint electorate by the author may not be the best mechanism to address the concerns raised by the author himself, but the fact that we need to revisit the electoral system certainly goes uncontested.
It is being argued in several countries, particularly those with multiparty politics that the first-past-the-post system has proved to be unfit as it delivers the least proportional results. With the defeat of BSP in UP Assembly Election in 2017 the debate in India has now gained momentum. What is important, however, to see whether the mainstream political parties that benefits from such a system will introduce such a reform that could only damage their own political power?
(Avinash Kumar Teaches at the Centre for Informal Sector and Labour Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University)