Electoral reservations and leadership quality in village India


Published 23.10.17

The dysfunctions of identity based elections can be overcome with reservations, by curtailing poor leaders securing power based on identity alone

Editor’s Note: This article is published in collaboration with Ideas 4 India.

Numerous countries have introduced explicit quotas, or reservations, to ensure political representation of disadvantaged groups. In India, seats are reserved for historically disadvantaged caste groups – Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST), and Other Backward Castes (OBC) – at all levels of government: federal, state, and throughout the Panchayat system (the system of decentralised governance in place in the rural areas).

Positive examples of reservations

Reserving political office for members of traditionally marginalised groups in India has been found to tilt governance outcomes in the interests of such groups. Effects have been found on policies, public goods, the provision of targeted benefits, and on measured poverty. Positive effects on the receipt of targeted benefits have been found for reserved groups in Besley et al. (2008).

Chattopadhyay and Duflo (2008) find that reserved women leaders seem to spend more on projects that are relatively highly prioritised by female village members. Bardhan et al. (2010) find easier access to credit results after a group-based reservation to SC/ST. Pande (2003) finds benefits at the state legislature.

Non-discernable effects of reservations

That reservations alter the distribution of public goods, as the evidence suggests, seems a priori reasonable, and as intended by reservation advocates. However, there are fewer reasons to expect reservations to impact the overall quality of governance. The evidence to date suggests either non-discernible effects, or negative ones. This might be because reservations replace seasoned politicians with neophytes, or less well-trained leaders, and such leaders lack the skills required to shepherd through good policies. Alternatively, reservations tend to replace leaders drawn from groups that are numerous among constituents, with those from groups that are thin on the ground. It is hypothesised that the latter have less stake in ensuring the provision of the public good that is good governance.

Negative effects of reservations

Leader ‘quality’ has been found to decline, for both female and SC reservations, by Chattopadhyay and Duflo (2004) for most observables (wealth, education, experience). Banerjee et al. (2013) report that after a reservation there are more contested elections because the leader is less likely to stand again. Such reservations, by inducing more inexperienced candidates to stand, and sometimes win, seem to have direct negative effects on government outcomes.

The study: The case of village India

In a new paper, we study the direct impact of reservations on overall governance quality. We demonstrate that in a divided society, like that of village India, where politics is organised along identity lines such as ethnicity, tribe or caste, there are good reasons to expect that reservations could improve overall governance quality (Anderson and Francois 2017). In such societies, the distribution of benefits to groups is of paramount interest to constituents.

Incumbency advantage

In divided societies, a type of ‘incumbency advantage’ that a group’s existing leader enjoys vis-à-vis a challenger from within the group plays a key role. The group’s hold on power is more likely to persist if their current leader can re-contest power, i.e. they remain the supported candidate of the group, rather than being replaced by a challenger who will then contest. The larger the chances of the group winning power with the current incumbent relative to a replacement challenger, the greater the incumbent’the supporpower. As Padro-i-Miquel (2007) points out, this creates a rent for the incumbent, allowing him/her to govern poorly, up to a point, while still receiving the support of group members.

Assured power and governance contestation

A similar logic underlies the support of leaders from all other groups, and poor overall governance is the predicted outcome regardless of which groups ascend to power. We show that political reservations in such a context can ameliorate these negative effects and hence improve governance. By reserving the leadership position for a representative of the group, the group no longer fears losing the election to an outsider. The reserved group does not then need to rally behind a poorly governing incumbent leader who will raise their chances of being in power, as power is assured. This allows the leadership to be freely contested and raises governance quality.

Reservations, power and group size

We show, however, that proportionate size matters for how reservations work, since power depends on size. If a group is so small that it has almost no capacity to retain leadership, even when retaining an incumbent, then the incumbency advantage is small and reservations have little effect. However, as the group increases proportion, so too does the incumbency advantage of the leader and his kleptocratic rent (leadership based chiefly on seeking status and personal gain at the expense of the governed). These are dissipated via the contested leadership race that occurs when the group has the safety of reservations.

A reserved leader drawn from a group that is larger still, so large as to be essentially guaranteed leadership even absent of reservations, will have no positive effect on governance. A group so large that it never fears losing the leadership position in an open contest will not have a leader enjoying kleptocratic rent in the first place, meaning reservations change nothing.

The findings: Rural Maharashtra

We test the non-monotonicity of the effects of reservations with respect to group size with data from rural Maharashtra. We find that reservations for groups that are almost guaranteed to provide the leader, and groups that are so small as to rarely attain leadership, register no improvement in governance in Maharashtrian villages. Only reservations for groups that can contest, but are not guaranteed the leadership, raise governance quality. In the Indian context, this is more likely to happen for OBC reservations, as they often form a significant proportion of the village population, in contrast to SC and ST groups.


Political reservations for traditionally disadvantaged castes in Indian villages can improve the quality of governance, not just with respect to that caste, but for the village as a whole. The reason it does so is due to the rigid nature of democracy when identity politics underlies the formation of political groupings. Collective beneficial activities that government could be undertaking are sacrificed for policies that cater to various group identities.

This pertains to the rural Indian villages in our sample. Therefore, citizens view their elected representatives as follows:

  • As an in-group member, whose primary job is to provide benefits to the group identity they represent, and are therefore assessed on these grounds.
  • As an overall village leader, whose equal if not more important duty is to ensure collective benefits for all.

Consequently, elected representatives who are only able to deliver the first task, are tolerated by the group they represent, even if they do the latter task poorly. This leads to the entrenchment of leaders who seek status and personal gain, at the expense of those they represent.

We show that political reservations – by allowing the incumbent’s kleptocratic rent to be safely contested within the group – are a means by which this type of political dysfunction can be ameliorated. The experiment of caste-based reservations in India suggests a broader message about how government dysfunction can be overcome in identity based electoral systems.

Photo credit: McKay Savage/flickr


Anderson, S and P Francois (2017) “Reservations and the Politics of Fear”.

Banerjee, A, E Duflo, C Imbert and R Pande (2013), “Entry, Exit and Candidate Selection: Evidence from India”, Working Paper, MIT.

Bardhan, P, D Mookherjee and M Torrado, M (2010), “Impact of Political Reservations in West Bengal Local Governments on Anti-Poverty Targeting”, Journal of Globalization and Development 1(1).

Besley, T, R Pande and V Rao (2008), “The Political Economy of Gram Panchayats in South India”, in G Kadekodi, R Kanbur and V and Rao (eds),  Development in Karnataka: Challenges of Governance, Equity and Empowerment, New Delhi: Academic Foundation.

Chattopadhyay, R and E Duflo (2004), “Women as Policy Makers: Evidence from a Randomized Policy Experiment in India”, Econometrica 72(5): 1409–1443.

Padro-i-Miquel, G (2007), “The Control of Politicians in Divided Societies: The Politics of Fear”, Review of Economic Studies 74(4): 1259-1274.

Pande, R (2003), “Can Mandated Political Representation Provide Disadvantaged Minorities Policy Influence? Theory and Evidence from India”, American Economic Review 93(4): 1132-1151.

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