Since independence, India has had electoral quotas for Scheduled Castes (SCs, Dalits, “untouchables”). These quotas have been praised for empowering members of a deprived community, but have also been criticized for bringing to power SC politicians who are mere tools in the hands of the upper castes. Tracing the history of these quotas through four critical junctures, I show how a British attempt to strengthen their own control of India eventually resulted in one of the world's most extensive quota systems for minorities. The quota system was in the end a compromise between several political goals, and was not strongly supported by anyone. Also, while the quotas were designed to integrate SC politicians into mainstream politics, there was a subtle and gradual shift in the debate about them, to being about development for the SC community as such. This created a disjuncture between the design of the quota system and the expectation of what it would achieve. The case of quotas in India illustrates how policy choices often result from long path-dependent processes, how policy makers struggle with trade-offs when trying to design institutions, and also the power of expectations in shaping the perceptions of the outcomes of those institutions.

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