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Does Political Affirmative Action Work, and for Whom? Theory and Evidence on India’s Scheduled Areas

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 August 2020

Stanford University
Aarhus University
Independent Scholar
Saad Gulzar, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Stanford University,
Nicholas Haas, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Aarhus University,
Benjamin Pasquale, Independent Scholar,


Does political affirmative action undermine or promote development? We present the first systematic analysis of Scheduled Areas in India, home to 100 million citizens, where local political office is reserved for the historically disadvantaged Scheduled Tribes. A newly constructed dataset of 217,000 villages allows us to probe conflicting hypotheses on the implementation of the world’s largest workfare program, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. We find that reservations deliver no worse overall outcomes, that there are large gains for targeted minorities, and that these gains come at the cost of the relatively privileged, not other minorities. We also find improvements in other pro-poor programs, including a rural roads program and general public goods. Reservations more closely align benefits to each group’s population share, allaying concerns of overcompensation for inequalities. Contrary to the expectations of skeptics, results indicate that affirmative action can redistribute both political and economic power without hindering overall development.

Research Article
© The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the American Political Science Association

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The authors would like to thank Ingo Rohlfing and three anonymous reviewers at the APSR, Ramnarayan Bhagat, Rachel Brulé, Lauren Davenport, Miriam Golden, Justin Grimmer, Maira Hayat, Clément Imbert, Hakeem Jefferson, Francesca Jensenius, David Laitin, Stephane Lavertu, Daniel Masterson, Durgesh Pathak, Vijayendra Rao, Cyrus Samii, David Stasavage, Milan Vaishnav, Guo Xu, and seminar participants at Gothenburg, ISI Delhi, Lahore School of Economics, NYU, Wisconsin-Madison, MPSA, OSU, Oxford, and Uppsala for helpful comments. Replication files are available at the American Political Science Review Dataverse:


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