Rachel Brulé joins Milan on the show this week to talk about gender inequality in India and the effectiveness of gender quotas in India's government. Plus, the two discuss Women’s Reservation Bill, a long-pending bill that would reserve one-third of parliamentary and state assembly seats in India for women.
In the early 1990s, India legislated sweeping new gender quotas in local government in the hopes that women’s political empowerment would help to rectify centuries-old social and economic inequalities. But, despite these moves, we know surprisingly little about whether and how quotas have undone entrenched social, political, and economic hierarchies around the world.
A new book by the political scientist Rachel Brulé—Women, Power and Property: The Paradox of Gender Inequality Laws in India—tackles precisely this question through a broad-ranging study of quotas in India and their impacts not just on women’s lives, but on the broader system of status hierarchy and dominance that permeates Indian society.
Rachel, an assistant professor of global development policy at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University, joins Milan on the show this week to talk about her new book, the entrenched nature of gender inequality in India and around the world, and the complex effects of quotas on development outcomes in India. Plus, the two discuss the prospects of the Women’s Reservation Bill, a long-pending bill that would reserve one-third of parliamentary and state assembly seats in India for women.
Welcome to Grand Tamasha, a co-production of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Hindustan Times. I'm your host, Milan Vaishnav.
In the early 1990s, India legislated sweeping new gender quotas in local government in the hopes that women's political empowerment would help to rectify centuries-old social and economic inequalities. India was not the only nation to adopt gender quotas – countries around the world have utilized quotas as a way of ensuring that women gain adequate representation in government. But despite these moves, we know surprisingly little about whether and how quotas have undone entrenched social, political, and economic hierarchies around the world. A new book by the political scientist Rachel Brulé, Women, Power, and Property: The Paradox of Gender Inequality Laws in India, tackles precisely this question through a broad-ranging study of quotas in India and their impacts not just on women's lives but on the broader systems of status, hierarchy, and dominance that permeate Indian society. Rachel is Assistant Professor of Global Development Policy at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University, and she joins me on the show for the very first time. Rachel, thanks for coming on.
Thank you so much for having me.
So, congrats on the book. I want to start by asking you about a striking line that comes in the earliest pages of the book. You write, “Women's global struggle for gender inequality is indicative of an even broader problem: dominance, where interlinked social, economic, and political systems of power constrain low-status groups.” I was really struck, Rachel, by your use of the term dominance here. It seemed quite intentional. Tell us a little bit about the system of power imbalance that you're calling out.
Yeah, thank you so much for highlighting this, Milan, because to me, this is a core piece of the book and of this kind of broader intellectual and policy-relevant project that I see it as contributing to, which is about, how do we get to egalitarian orders? And to get there, it's not just about gender inequality – it's also about these systems, as you said, of power imbalance that affect racial minorities, particularly groups whose ancestors were enslaved, and those with disadvantages that are formalized by hierarchies of either religion or class or often both of those things at once. If we think about the caste system, for example, in India, and individuals that I observed firsthand whose participation in labor migration systems puts them into near-permanent statuses of marginality, where they often don't have access to legal citizenship, and thus at any moment, are in incredibly precarious not just legal systems but physical systems as well… And we see that at our southern border in the United States as well as [with] migrants to the Gulf countries, if we look toward the Middle East, but also in these processes by which we see these massive urbanization from rural to urban settings in India and China – honestly, in most of the countries of the world today.
In each of these domains, we face these significant gaps in voice, agency, and access to material resources, which loom that much larger because we see these forms of status inequality overlap. And so, to use the term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, we can think about this as intersectionality. And so the way that she highlighted this initially was to think about the ways that identity is complicated by overlapping sources of disadvantage. And the one minor addendum I would make is that we also have these overlapping sources of advantage... that make those in positions of power have incredible stakes in maintaining the status quo because privilege overlaps across so many domains. And then, from the reverse side, it makes overturning these systems of dominance all that much harder because those in these subordinate positions have to overcome so many disadvantages to make their arguments heard and to have a shot at influence in these inegalitarian orders which shape life across the entirety of the globe today.
It reminded me of the arguments put forward in Isabel Wilkerson's new book on caste. We're talking about race largely in the United States, where we're not talking necessarily about the distinctions of difference – we really are talking about hierarchical orders and dominance. The prism through which you study gender inequality and gender empowerment is really the system of electoral quotas for female heads of local government in India. And as most of our listeners would know, these exist at the local level across India's villages and urban centers – they don't exist at higher levels of government. That's something that we're going to come back to later.
Early on in the book, you discuss the example of a woman, Padmawathi, who is a Dalit living in rural Andhra Pradesh. Tell us a bit about who she is. How does her struggle and her example mirror the broader themes that you tried to study in the book?
So, Padmawathi really stood out to me – and I had the pleasure to meet her many times, actually, in rural Andhra Pradesh, where I did the bulk of my research. So, I spent over a year across a number of villages, but I kept coming back to her, and I was lucky enough to bring my students to meet her as well. As you mentioned, this is a Dalit woman, and she had this really improbable rise into political power. Not only did her caste, as a former untouchable, make it unlikely that that she would enter the state itself, but also, obviously, her gender. And so, for her, the organizing to create some kind of voice, to create some kind of agency, took an incredible amount of time and creative resourcing.
So, the way that she started was actually a theme that I saw across many women who did make it into politics, which was organizing on her front stoop long after dark, after she had finished all the duties that she was required to perform for her household. And she really built this infrastructure of collective female power from the ground up. And I mention this, the fact that this happens after dark, the fact that it happens on her front porch, because this organizing for her and for many other women occurs on the margins of what we would consider real lights, and this is the only time that was really physically available to Padmawathi to step outside of her traditional role.
And so what she did initially to bring women together was creating something of value for all of them, which was helping them to access microcredit, and what was one of the first self-help groups in rural Andhra Pradesh. And here, again, the way we think about self-help groups today often tends to be these top-down creations that are enabled by central states or by international organizations, and I just want to take a moment to say, this is not at all the case of what we see in terms of the early stages of microfinance and these self-help groups in rural Andhra Pradesh, which were built by networks of really fierce female activists who were creating something that was a step forward in a broader feminist agenda to rebalance access to material resources.
So, this is her first step, and even so, even at this really minor incremental change, to bring women together from her local community and have them sit together and figure out how they could broaden the pool of material resources they had access to was something that was very much out of sync with the ways that things were done in her household, in her community. And so these meetings were regularly broken up by her husband, who would throw open the front door and come out screaming at Padmawathi that she was blackening the family name and pull her by her long braids back inside the house, preemptively ending these meetings. So, there was really physical endurance by Padmawathi in addition to this broader intellectual commitment to advancing agency for herself and these other women that she had to vocalize again and again.
But she persevered, and so over time, she was able to mobilize larger and larger groups of women, and the self-help groups that she was a part of look very much like the broader models that we see today. They were very committed to a notion of federated structure, and so Padmawathi rose in this federated structure of the self-help groups and gained a reputation as a very effective organizer, not just in helping these local groups of women but then in advancing broader causes: ensuring that women got access to the local state bureaucrats that they needed to make sure that government programs that should be distributed to them were, that they were correctly implemented, and so on.
And she did this, again, in the face of fierce resistance. So, she would recount numerous times where bureaucrats whose offices she had courageously stepped into – often with a bevy of women around her... This is very much what a forthcoming book by Soledad Prillaman talks about: this strength in numbers was very important, to have this physical solidarity of other women to even step into these male-dominated spaces, but she would do so. She would make her case convincingly, and then she walked out, and typically male bureaucrats would spit in her face and say, “You're not fit to touch my trash.” And so it's really, again, an incredible amount of courage that was required on her part to again and again face these kinds of threats that were leveled against her from [everyone from] her intimate family to authorities in the state.
Yet she perseveres, and these networks of women who see her and value her agency grow. And so when quotas open the door to women to compete for local elected office, she competes, and she wins thanks to the votes of these women who she's helped in the past. And so I want to mention this again, this substantive representation that she was really providing for female constituents. We talk about quotas often as enabling something that much more looks like symbolic representation, where we say, “Well, doesn't it make people feel better to see a woman in the seat of authority?” with the implicit assumption that all she's doing is really sitting.
Could I ask you about this, actually? Because in the book, you argue that reserving the highest elected positions in village government for women sets into motion “seismic waves” – that's the term that you use – that unsettle an entire social, political, and economic system. So, as you just described, this leads to a positive process of empowerment, but it also under certain conditions leads to pretty severe backlash.
Now, when it comes to the gender quotas themselves, many Indians I've spoken with – and I'm sure you've had these conversations – are pretty dismissive of electoral quotas for women, insisting that what typically happens is a man will put up his wife or his daughter up for election and then kind of remote control them from the background, from behind the scenes. How do you respond to that sort of skepticism?
Yeah, so I very much – as you note – have encountered the same kind of skepticism across the board, and it often takes the form of people noting that it's just the pradhan pati who's really in charge – it's the female sarpanch's husband who's really doing the work. And so I've thought about this a lot, and I would answer it in three parts. But [first I would just] note that this is an assumption that has both empirical and normative facets, and I think it's easier to answer the empirical ones than the normative ones, but I'm going to try to address them both.
So, first, on the empirical side, it's interesting, if we step back to the big picture and think about the arc of political career paths, to note that there really is this universal presence, whether we're talking about a man or a woman's career, of a “godfather” – this is to use Mary John's terms – who initiates political careers both for men and for women. And yet this sort of presence of an additional support or facilitator is really only considered noteworthy when we consider those individuals who are not seen as entitled to hold these positions. So, we think about this in the case of women, but also potentially in the case of, for example, scheduled caste men. And so I do want to note that I think we could do a lot more service, if we really care about how people come into office and who they're representing, to think about this in and outside of just the simple gender binary.
That said, there's a lot about the terrain of influence that we still don't know. And so I'll come back to this in a moment because it shaped two additional projects that I'm working on right now, but before I do, I want to also just tackle head-on the normative dimension of these statements. And here, I think they bear a striking resemblance to [what] Professor of Philosophy Kate Manne, who's based at Cornell, [proposes as a] definition of misogyny.
She talks about misogyny as a system of enforcement for patriarchal social orders, where this is used to police and enforce women's subordination and uphold male dominance. And she notes this as against a backdrop of other intersecting systems of oppression and vulnerability, dominance and disadvantage – again, we're not just talking about dominance in a gendered domain. But that said, at the end of the day, this social order of patriarchy, as she talks about, has one pretty simple facet, which is that these kinds of norms focus on enabling male entitlements and female obligations.
And so in this context – and I think that these kinds of statements are not necessarily made with this intent, but essentially serve to police a particular facet of patriarchal order which says that women shouldn't be in positions of political or public dominance. And so if we see a woman in a position of authority, ignore what you see, ignore what you hear, and replace in your mind – we can just all comfortably assume that there's really a man in control, and this doesn't fundamentally disrupt the patriarchal order. And so I would just encourage, to the extent that these kinds of very common statements get made, whether it's in public or private, to ask people, why do we say these things with such ease without any empirical evidence? So, that's the normative side, which I think we do need to take seriously, and I do, as a political scientist.
And finally, to come back to the theoretical side of the question, we have no idea whether we're talking about one or two symbolic cases of sustained male dominance or whether this is truly the norm. And to answer this question, I'm working with some really fantastic other political scientists – Simon Chauchard, who is an assistant professor at Leiden University, and Alyssa Heinze, who's just about to join the University of California, Berkeley as a PhD student – to look at the terrain of influence. We have ongoing work which is paused due to the incredible tragedy that is COVID-19 in India right now, but we are working across Maharashtra to survey male and female – from upper and lower castes – sarpanches, gram sevaks, as well as village notables, balanced by gender and caste to get a sense of how it already works in practice in the presence versus the absence of reservations for women. And we also are working to see if slight changes to the rules of deliberation can make a difference in ensuring that women's voices are heard. And then we've just gotten funding – along with Bhumi Purohit, who is another fantastic political scientist PhD student at UC Berkeley – to work with the Self-employed Women's Association to go one step further and to try to enable greater levels of agency for female elected politicians by enacting mentorship programs – under certain conditions, with networking training as well – through an RCT framework to see if strong female elected officials can help junior elected officials avoid the specter of the pradhan pati.
So, we're going to hold you to account, Rachel, to come back and report back on these things because, as you mentioned, these are empirical questions, at the end of the day, that we can find answers to.
I want to transition a bit from quotas to asking you about the kind of substance of female empowerment on the ground. So, the book, in large measure, focuses on property and property inheritance, and you do this by looking at a set of inheritance reforms that were amendments to something called the Hindu Succession Act, which was passed way back in 1956, that gradually equalized inheritance rights of all daughters who are subject to Hindu law. Now, given that 80 percent of India's population is Hindu, and just under half of all Indians are women, obviously, I think it's pretty self-evident why these laws would be important to study. But I'm curious: what brought you, Rachel Brulé, to the subject of property? Because you could imagine, if you were interested in gender empowerment, a range of domains that could be impacted by women's political representation. So, why this one?
Yeah. And thank you for that question, because property is really close to my heart. And I can understand – as a political scientist, this doesn't seem like an intuitive kind of attachment. But, for me – and this is something I talk about in a tiny section of the book because I do think it's an important piece of the story – the thing that brought me to the study of property was actually time that I spent in a neighbor of India, in Sri Lanka, while the civil war in the country was still underway, working with a neighbor of yours, Brookings, and the Consortium for Humanitarian Agencies (CHA), based in Colombo but operating across Sri Lanka. And I was there as a grad student while I was at the Oxford Forced Migration program.
Then-President Kumaratunga had asked Brookings and the CHA to say, “Okay, so I want to end internal displacement. How do I do it?” This is with the caveat that the Civil War was still on – maybe slightly optimistic to think that that was a moment where that problem could be magically lifted from the country. But that said, Brookings and the CHA took this seriously and said, “Okay, well, why don't we start by talking to displaced persons themselves and seeing what they say?” And so I went on their behalf to a number of the camps where displaced persons had been living now for years, if not decades, and just had conversations to say, “What would it take for you to leave this camp and feel good about that decision?” And again and again, what people told me was, “We need property in our name.” So, sometimes they did have property and it was actually under control of the military at that moment, and other times, they didn't – they hadn't had property prior to that. But the bottom line was that they said, “For our security, and to have a secure future for our children, we need to have secure rights to land.”
And so that, to me, was incredibly striking and just gave me a sense, beyond the kind of intellectual or academic domain, why property can really make a fundamental difference. And so I went to start working in India after that with MIT's Poverty Action Lab, particularly with Sendhil Mullainathan, and started looking at what was going on with property and trying to see, what were the dynamics? What were the ways in which there were really opportunities to fundamentally expand people's access to property rights? And so [it was] a combination of that basic curiosity and then seeing work by Sanchari Roy, in particular, on the Hindu Succession Act Amendment, which brought to my attention that, “Oh, wow, this is a radical move that the state is making to fundamentally expand property rights to 50 percent of the population.” And, as you say, it's not really fair to say 50 percent of the population – this is weighted by just looking at Hindus. And it's a much more complicated story, if we want to move to other religious communities, about the conditions under which the state is willing to legislate – and is really the appropriate body to legislate – these kinds of rights. But nonetheless, to me, that gave me a window in to say, this is something that should make a difference, and this is a place where formal property rights could start to disrupt the system of patriarchal orders.
I mean, it's a good reminder to PhD students that your dissertation topic and subsequent first book will find you in ways that you may not ever have intended.
One of the main findings of the book is that women's political empowerment and the subsequent enforcement of their economic rights can create a massive backlash, especially amongst men who might feel that their rights are being impinged upon, being taken away. I'm curious: at a practical level, on the ground, how does this resistance manifest itself? And do you kind of see this as the inevitable response or pushback to a greater move toward civil rights and equality? I mean, if you think about our own country, the United States, it seems like whenever we made progress in one direction, there is often a pushback in the reverse direction because we live in a highly unequal society.
So, I will answer you in two parts. Let me answer the second part first, which is, is this inevitable? I think yes, with a caveat. So, yes, if what we're trying to do is to fundamentally disrupt inegalitarian orders and to redistribute fundamental entitlements, we should expect backlash. If what we're doing really works, there should be resistance. I don't think power is ever willingly revoked at such a scale.
That said, the caveat to me is the cost, and so I don't think that we can or we should be neutral when it comes to the cost of that resistance. And here, I hope that my book does provide, actually, a set of tools for policymakers to think about how to anticipate and proactively moderate the cost of that backlash by thinking about how to enable the intended beneficiaries' negotiations, how to make sure that they have bargaining power. And that's, I think, a combination of complementary institutions; very concrete, well-directed information about their rights; and concrete opportunities for them. And in that context, then, beneficiaries can take matters into their own hands and negotiate what I call “integrative bargains” that actually expand the pie of resources. So, transform negotiations from zero-sum games where status quo beneficiaries lose and status quo subordinates win to ones where everyone is actually better off because we have a more expansive set of opportunities on the table.
I mean, I'm just trying to get a sense of – going back to Padmawathi's story, right, backlash was this husband physically grabbing his wife by her braids and pulling her back in the house. So, we're not just talking about people [being] angry – we're talking about physical violence. What are the ways in which this presents at the local level?
So, thank you, because I think this is an important part of the story, and I will say it's the most uncomfortable part of the story, and so I really appreciate your willingness to sit with that.
I would say there are three forms of backlash: we see it economically, we see it politically, and we see it socially. And the one of those that I give the most space to in the book is the first, the economic backlash. Here, there's this striking shift where we see what quotas do by enabling these female gatekeepers to replace male gatekeepers – they do fundamentally change the way the state works. So, I mention they do three things. They reconfigure public space: they make it accessible and safe for women to enter the state, whether we're talking about meetings of local councils or whether we're talking about questions of coming together to vote or to discuss potential policies and advocate for them. And one of the ways in which they actually make that state space meaningful is by proactively mobilizing women so that they know about their rights and they know how to effectively demand them. And here, I just want to note that this is not about women being more altruistic or more socially inclusive, necessarily, than men, but rather about really pretty hard electoral incentives, where women need to establish independent voting blocs and independent sources of supporters. And women, on average, have, at least in the past, voted less frequently than men and been much less frequently in attendance in local political meetings, rallies, and so on. And so this is kind of an easy audience for women to reach out to and make them pivotal in enabling women themselves to make a difference in office. And the third thing they do is repurposing private spaces as public – so, enabling negotiations over rights and resources to be had that are explicitly political inside the house before they have to reach the courtroom.
And so I just want to add that preamble to say, this is why I think we do see a fundamental shift in women's ability to inherit rights in the presence of female gatekeepers, in the presence of quotas. And so when these economic rights are purely symbolic – so, prior to gender-equalizing inheritance reform, prior to this Hindu Succession Act Amendment, we see a dramatic increase in women's ability to claim these symbolic inheritance rights. So, from about 10 percent of women to 16 percent of women inherit in the presence of female gatekeepers. Without female gatekeepers, reform itself makes no difference in the likelihood that women inherit land or the amount of land they inherit.
But once we have women who have these female gatekeepers who can claim their rights once these rights become substantial – so, once we have truly equal gender inheritance – that's where we see backlash. So, we actually see a drop in the likelihood that women inherit land where we have gender equal land inheritance and female gatekeepers by 9 to 10 percentage points. But this is concentrated amongst those women who don't have bargaining power.
And as you mentioned, I think about this in terms of timing. So, I look at this as, women who are likely married, women who were twenty years or older at the time of reform, these are the women who suffer the cost, who suffered this economic backlash. In contrast, those who were unlikely to be married at the time of reform, those who were less than twenty, are the ones who can actually strike integrative bargains that lessen the cost of reforms' enforcement on their families by trading monetary dowry for land inheritance. And these women are much more likely to gain land inheritance with female gatekeepers, by 9 percentage points, again, when we're talking about equal land inheritance.
This isn't just about property rights, right? Because you have separate chapters on sex selection, which we know is a big issue – there's a very skewed sex ratio in India. It's also about the willingness of sons to care for their parents when they get older. And one of the things that you conclude – I think it's one of the major conclusions – you paraphrase an Indian parliamentarian who said that law without a paradigm shift won't work at all, right? So, social norms, in a sense, have to change. So, I'm just wondering, just to kind of show how broad the story is, when you think about whether men or women in a joint family household are going to care for their elderly parents, what are the other factors at work? It's about timing, it's about gatekeepers, but it's also about the changing social norms.
So, again I think social norms don't exist in a vacuum. I think that one of the greater and more important flaws in the way that academics tend to approach these problems is to look at them as really discrete, analytic questions. When it comes to social norms, the way I try to talk about them are as ecosystems of interconnected norms.
So, in this case, when we talk about property inheritance, this is interconnected with the broader social organization that we see across most of contemporary India today. Inheritance is – we could say it's a right or it's an entitlement which has in many communities, though not all, been an exclusively male entitlement, particularly thanks to the ways that the British colonial rule harmonized Hindu law. So, given that context, there is a set of obligations that are often typically associated with this male entitlement to inherit, which are the obligations to care not just for the property but for the family as a whole, for that joint Hindu family, which means remaining in the household after marriage so that you can take care of the property, but also so that you can take care of your parents as they age, and when they pass away, so that you can perform the death rites for your parents as well.
And so once this reform breaks the exclusivity of men's entitlement to property, what I find is that it also breaks sons' sense of obligation to care for their parents and old age. The way that I look at that is by co-residence, which is one of the most important and easily observable parts of that obligation to care for one's parents, and I find that when we're just looking at this subset of families that have daughters and sons – and just looking at firstborn, married, adult sons – we see a significant drop in their willingness to care for elderly parents when they have a sister who is eligible to inherit and is likely to inherit because there is a female gatekeeper that has been imposed by quotas by reservations. And so the likelihood that these brothers care for their elder parents drops by 36 percentage points. It's an enormous drop. And this is what I would call the social backlash that we see to the reform, which is devastating for elder parents.
I also mentioned, as you alluded to, the second kind of facet of this social backlash: sex selection. So, we see that the expectation that a female gatekeeper will enforce gender-equal inheritance exacerbates sex selection to prevent daughters' birth, and we see a drop that is highly statistically significant in the ratio of daughters to total children by eight to 11 percentage points when we look across all women and all mothers in my sample, although – this is the only ray of hope here – it's slightly attenuated when we look at the youngest cohort of mothers in the sample. But, yes, this backlash is severe, and I would say it ripples across generations, both affecting the older generations as well as generations who have yet to be born.
Rachel, one of the things that I really admire about the book is its honesty – not just in terms of the findings, but also in terms of how you talk about the research design and the research process. Sometimes, you read books and articles, and everything is “just so.” Right? “I have this hypothesis, and lo and behold, the evidence bears that out, and I did these three things, and I had this perfect thing, and there were no errors, and there was no contamination.” And it almost stretches one's credulity. But in the book you talk about – and this is what you say – you say it's the “frustrating, incomplete nature of research design.” So, you're trying to look at real world policies. You're not working in a laboratory setting. It was a kind of refreshing dose of honesty about field work, about statistics, about the research process, and I'm curious why you felt the need to include this, because I could see you getting pushback from others, including maybe advisors, who are like, “Just maybe leave that part out which might give people some doubts.” But in fact, I thought it only bolsters your findings, right? Because you feel like what you're getting is the kind of unvarnished truth with all of the nuances required.
Thank you a lot. I feel like it's such a long process to bring a book into being, and, to me, the more integrity that I can have in that process, the more lasting value that I hope it has, the more real conversations that it enables. That would be my hope. And I felt that I need to do that in part because I think it fits with the broader kind of project that I would say that I tried to commit to, which is to make the invisible visible – to make what we often gloss over or assume away evident and its power more clear.
In particular, I was thinking about – we have this gender division of labor about what constitutes the public and what constitutes the private domain, the gendered assumptions that we typically make about the public and the political domain being male and the private, interpersonal, familial domain being one that is where women have their agency. To me, then we ignore the incredible political negotiations – and really the roots of the modern nation-state – that exist within the family. And, to me, I got there by paying attention to the messier parts of interventions, by looking at why we don't have perfect compliance with the Hindu Succession Act Amendment or why we don't see perfect and automatic implementation. And I hope that it is kind of it gives people permission in the future – as you mentioned, graduate students, but also policymakers and analysts – to acknowledge the messy parts of interventions and to acknowledge that we learn a great deal from paying attention to and sitting with them, the messiness and the uncomfortable pieces of those things.
I want to bring this conversation to a close by asking about some big-picture stuff. As you know, for decades, politicians in India have been debating the wisdom of instituting legislative reservations for women at the state and national levels. Right now, as we talked about before, these quotas only apply to local-level government. As this debate drags on – and I'm sure it will continue to drag on – how optimistic are you that the creation of a quota for women at these higher levels of government could produce the kind of progressive public policies that might benefit women? Do we think that this is a key part of the answer?
Yes, I do think quotas are a key part of the answer, and yes, I am optimistic that they will make a difference – with a caveat. The caveat is that I would really hesitate to imply that all women are equally committed to this radical process of transformative social change.
And here, there's some excellent guidance from the work of Irma Clots-Figueras, who looks at state-level elected legislators, and she finds that women behave far differently when they're sitting in seats that have been reserved for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes than they do in non-reserved seats. And it is in those reserved seats that we see women pushing very effectively for greater investments in health, in early education, and in favor of women-friendly laws such as the Hindu Succession Act Amendment. And in a work that's under review right now with Aliz Tóth, who's a graduate student at Stanford, we look at the impact of two-dimensional versus one-dimensional quotas – so, quotas that mandate that a woman from a Scheduled Caste or Tribe be the head of the local panchayat across rural India today. And we see fundamental differences. When we look at what women are doing in seats reserved for SCs and STs, as opposed to what typically men are doing in those SC and ST seats that are not reserved for women, or what women are doing for typically forward castes or [those] from Other Backward Castes in those seats that aren't reserved for Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes, we see fundamental changes in social relations and in inter-caste conflict where we have two-dimensional reservations in place. And so I'm really optimistic about the changes that can happen when we bring the most excluded groups into power.
And the final thing I'll say about this front is I don't think this is just idle speculation. I think if we look at the recent elections in West Bengal, we can see that where female voters themselves are pivotal – as they are in West Bengal, as we've seen in the past, and what led to these reservations in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, among other places – there we see policies change. However, this is much more likely to happen in the presence of committed female leaders, as we see with Mamata Banerjee. I think we have a long way to go. There's an enormous amount of resistance from those who have a stake in maintaining the status quo, and I think without more competition politically, we're unlikely to see the openings that are required to really make higher-level quotas a reality. But I am optimistic we will get there because I think it is truly in everyone's interest to do so.
My guest on the show this week is the political scientist Rachel Brulé. She's the author of the new book, Women, Power, and Property: The Paradox of Gender Inequality Laws in India. This is a book that tackles a really, really big question, but does so by making it tractable through a series of really practical investigations that don't hide the nuance and the messiness of what it is to do research – and, frankly, the realities of India as it exists today.
Rachel, thank you so much for writing the book, for taking the time, for sharing some of your wisdom. It was great to catch up.
Thank you so much, Milan, for having me on the Grand Tamasha. It's just a real joy and privilege to have these conversations with you now and I hope for years to come.