There has been a historic shift in the forms and modes of political representations available to the people who seek to take up the representation of their interests and social claims. There are two significant changes with respect to this:

  1. In the early 20th century, there was an upsurge of social relations formed in workplaces, getting organized into trade unions and then linking it to political parties. Now the new politics are more focused on social movements, voluntary associations and NGOs amongst other forms. The issues which these movements take up are more local than national.

  2. There has been a change in the process of representation which is marked by a greater emphasis on descriptive representation and participation in decision making. This means that even if there is a policy which is equitable and just, it can be objected to on the grounds that it did not include minorities like women for example in its formulation. There is a focus on the entire process being democratic.

These global trends provide an important context to the discussion of the politics of representation in India. Representative democracy in India is largely connected to a deepening of the concept of democracy and places a large emphasis on the role of electoral politics in providing space for the expression of rights and claims by disadvantaged groups. Some political scientists even go on to say that the electoral politics in the 1990s is the second democratic upsurge after India’s independence movement. This politics of representation has bought leaders from the grassroots and from the historically backward and lower castes to the focus. A significant percentage of the voter participation is also from the poorer classes, the uneducated and the socially underprivileged castes in India. This is in contrast to industrialized democracies where participation is biased towards better educated, wealthier and advantaged citizens.

Even though political parties are not institutionalized so as to speak, it is through them that there has been an increased participation of marginalized groups in politics. Contrary to popular belief, the needs and interests of the poorer groups are met by the political parties rather than by the NGOs and other social movements. Available evidence so far highlights a substantial increase in political participation and continuing importance of parties, both of which underline the strength and legitimacy of the political system. But this also poses a challenge with regard to political representation as it does not deal with the status of political equality and citizen’s abilities to produce change unless we accept the standard formulation that everyone’s vote should count as one vote, which implies that all are equal.

Political equality implies that there needs to be a proportionate distribution of political activity. While there is an increase in the participation through public meetings, demonstrations and rallies, this has not translated into real participation through involvement in critical decision making which happen in such events. There is no real political equality in that sense.

There are two types of political representation broadly. In the first one, a person becomes a representative of the people by virtue of a contract or mandate. In this he is expected to deliver some set targets and responsibilities. In the second one, a person is selected from the people itself. He belongs to the community or group and is selected in any way to represent the needs and issues of the community. In other words he is a part of the community which he represents.

In most cases the representative does not represent persons as such; rather the representative is charged with the responsibility of seeing that the interests of the constituents are adequately represented in decision-making, and is obliged not only to represent interests, but also to ensure that something is done about the pressing problems of the constituency, in terms of production and implementation of appropriate policies, for instance. In short, the representative is accountable to her constituency.

The political representation can be assessed in two ways. Firstly, by the process of representation and secondly by the quality of representation and responsiveness. The three groups which have been historically underrepresented in politics are: Other Backward Classes (OBCs) up till recently, women and minorities.

The major change in representation has been a switch from the ‘politics of ideas’ to the ‘politics of presence’. The politics of ideas means that a person would support an ideology he believes in. For example, a person would vote for the BJP if he believes in their ideology alone. Politics of presence implies that a person who represents the larger community or group one belongs to would be supported. For example, simplistically, a Dalit would choose to vote for a Dalit candidate no matter what the candidate’s political ideology is.

But the politics of presence is also questionable as it does not necessarily bring out a resolution for the problems of under-representation or to the larger issue that the representation of interests of the constituents, especially the most vulnerable may not be met. Having a larger number of representatives of one group does not necessarily translate to a change in policy for that group. Additionally, simply changing the social structure of a party would not change the party’s ideologies and its focus on issues for the disadvantaged or even for that group.

There are three major challenges in the politics of representation. They are:

  1. It could over-politicize group differences, thereby disrupting political stability, weaken the basis for political accountability, and undermine representation aimed at promoting the general interests and shared concerns, which might also have policy implications. Such a shift towards identity politics has exacerbated social conflicts and advanced the politicization of social cleavages. Indeed, the most overtly conflictual aspects of Indian politics have in recent years been those related to identity politics, variously, Punjab, Assam, Kashmir, Ayodhya and Mandal. It has reduced accountability and damaged responsiveness because presence becomes a value in itself at the expense of interests, principles and ideas.

  2. The second concerns proportionality in the process of representation and the varied processes of gender and minority as categories/groups in enhancing their presence in decision-making structures. The different groups cannot harness their numbers in the absence of political mobilization and readiness of political parties to give them nominations. But when we look at the problem in a larger time-frame then we can see that reservations do play the role of a catalyst in the construction of political identities. In other words, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and OBCs have become political categories through reservations.

  1. The third argument pertains to the substance of representation. While much of the justification for electoral reservation revolves around the need for marginalized groups to have a voice within the legislature which will otherwise get submerged, there is little systematic evidence to show that representatives elected from these seats have performed this role with effectiveness. Special representation in governing institutions may not benefit the whole community, and it invariably results in promoting personal empowerment of middle classes and elites and transfer of resources to them. It may just create a new elite group among the disadvantaged who participate with society’s elite.

To conclude: By its very nature representation as presence does not have a broad transforming agenda. It is a politics of positional change, not structural reform.