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Is representation enough in politics?

One of the significant moments that defined the structure of political representation in India was the 1932 Poona Act. It was about B.R. Ambedkar’s proposal for having a separate electorates for India’s population of ‘depressed classes’ or ‘untouchables’, also referred to as scheduled castes. This act was opposed by Mahatma Gandhi. Even though the British formally accepted the structure of the separate electorates, Gandhi refused it as he argued that social reform is a much better tool than politics to address caste inequality, and feared that the latter would create divisions among caste groups. Ambedkar, on the other hand, believed that only through politics true emancipation would be brought. It would allow the scheduled castes to freely elect their representatives without any influence of the overly represented upper caste groups. Gandhi resisted the proposal by fasting; this also helped him gain public sympathy. Ambedkar was, therefore, forced to change his stance. 

“I want political power for my community. That is indispensible for our survival,”

B.R. Ambedkar 

Because of this incident, the current representation for scheduled castes in India is influenced by upper caste groups and in consequence, the representatives are not free to truly work for their constituents. Despite having reservations for scheduled castes in both upper and lower house of parliament in India, the power structures are designed in a manner that restrict the scheduled caste representatives from asserting their influence and working for the most disenfranchised groups in India. 

The consequence of such moments is not restricted only to India, similar structures exist in many countries. The United States of America recently witnessed the brutal murder of George Floyd by a police officer. This led to an outpour of condemnation throughout the country and the rest of the world. Racism in America is deeply integrated in the American story. Its foundation is shaken by slavery and the perils of fighting it through the epochs — from the civil war to the civil rights movement and to the present times. 

“No curtain under heaven is heavier than that curtain of guilt and lies behind which white Americans hide.”

– James Baldwin 

George Floyd’s death has brought to surface the deep-rooted problem of racism that still exists. The reforms over the years have not been successful in shunning such actions and transforming institutional racism. Political representation is a tool that was introduced as part of a changing democratic society. It was believed that it would help in the fight to give the marginalised a voice and bring them justice. However, in the midst of the current events, we have to ask ourselves, is representation in politics enough to achieve this goal? 

Oil painting by French artist, Leopold Braun shows the House of Commons debating chamber in 1914.  Credit: Palace of Westminster Collection.

In most democratic countries, politicians represent a particular group of people (constituents), mostly elected by them. This arrangement leads to an understanding of whether political representatives act as trustees or delegates of the people when they go to parliament. A trustee is a political leader who act in accordance to his own judgement; a delegate, on the other hand, is one who takes his constituent’s demands and preferences into consideration and pushes for them. However, though delegates wish to present their constituent’s demands, they are under the risk of being influenced by the structure and norms of parliament, this can lead to advocating for competing decisions from the constituents’ preferences. And over the years, a trustee representative echoes the words of Edmund Burke – “You choose a member, indeed; but when you have chosen him he is not a member of Bristol, but he is a member of Parliament.”

This system of functioning has led to many years of progress and established the stability of parliamentary procedure and consensus-building. However, it has also built mistrust between the constituents and their representatives. When the decisions made are not in agreement with the constituents, they develop a negative impression of the ‘establishment’. While constituents wish to rebel against the establishment, they are shackled by the realm of identity politics and are unable to go beyond the interest of their group. The representatives go further and create the illusion — “I am your only choice” to consolidate their power. 

The relationship between institutions and citizens is imbalanced. In many countries, institutions are designed to reinforce their hierarchy by unjustly influencing citizens. Since representatives become a part of the state machinery, there is an inevitable disconnect between their political ambitions and the interest of their constituents. This disassociation between the two had led to an increase in symbolic representation over the years. 

While symbolic representation has utility and value for certain marginalised group identities, questioning its effectiveness is important. For example, in the case of America, more and more African-American members have been elected to Congress, including having the first African-American president. However, has symbolic representation helped in changing the problems of these groups? In many cases, unfortunately, it has not. 

The Awakening, February 20, 1915 Chromolithograph (Cornell University, The PJ Mode Collection of Persuasive Cartography)

Similarly, the representation of women in politics becomes problematic when studied. Most women were elected either acts of symbolic gestures or as Francine D’Amico puts it, ‘the widow’s walk,’ — walking into the political leadership job previously occupied by their deceased husbands. This analogy can be further extended to fill-in the seat of their deceased father in the case of India and Pakistan — both Indira Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto took over their father’s role. While in theory, this adds to the number of female representatives, such representation is often critiqued as it does not add further to the causes and reasons for advancing women issues. When women are elected as figureheads, they are forced to play by the existing patriarchal rules and are, therefore, unable to bring about any change. An example of this is – The most known woman leader, Margaret Thatcher, was infamously identified with anti-feminist politics. 

A study by Iyer and Mani in India (2019) found that the presence of women village leaders had no impact on any measures of electoral participation for women. Furthermore, they also found that there is a lack of conclusive evidence that women’s electoral participation helps in reducing the problems faced by women. Zetterberg’s (2008) research on Latin America, identified that there is a minute relationship between sex quotas and women’s levels of political interest, trust in politicians or political parties, and perceptions of political knowledge.

This pattern is also followed with religious minorities, considering Muslims in India, who despite having representation, have not been able to make much positive difference in their community. Therefore, we can conclude that representation of the marginalised in politics does not always benefit the marginalised but becomes a mere symbolic gesture. For example, India has a Dalit President, but it has not had any positive impact on the lives of the Dalit community. 

The black lives matter movement was emerged under Barack Obama.


This crisis of symbolic representation was aptly conveyed by Cornel West: 

“Cause all they (Democratic Party) want is show more black faces. But often times these Black faces are losing legitimacy, too. Because the black lives matter movement emerged under a Black president, Black attorney general, and Black Homeland Security and they couldn’t deliver”  

Any symbolic-identity representation will eventually highlight its ineffectiveness and show the fractures within the political institution. The importance of this argument is to present the limitations of the commonly used solution of quotas and having more representation of the marginalised groups. Evidently, that is not enough in solving the problems of the marginalised. It is ineffective because of the flawed design of our democratic institutions. Prolonging such solutions will delay the actions required for the necessary improvements and create a false narrative of change. 

A way forward is to rethink the concept of representation. Representation should not focus on the symbolic gesture of inclusion for the marginalised, but instead, on limiting the influence of the overrepresented privileged groups. Ambedkar, with the Poona Act of 1932, was trying to rebalance the scales and distribute power equally. Furthermore, instead of a strict identity-based representation, the polity of an intersectional representation can help bridge the divide among groups. While such a coalition is not fool-proof and creates friction, as seen recently with Bernie Sander’s campaign, a change in the nature of the discourse is required. We need to rethink the mechanism of electorates and the function of parliament, otherwise, the future of representative politics will continue to diminish the last few remains of influence of the marginalised in our society. 

Joanah Thomas is an independent researcher based in Chennai. 


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