THERE HAVE been two layers of opposition to the proposal to reserve 33.3 percent of Lok Sabha and Assembly seats for women. The first is more visible and audible. It represents the fear of Hindi heartland chieftains — specifically Mulayam and Lalu Yadav — that they could lose ground in their pocket boroughs. Bringing up a series of red herrings — quotas within quotas, subquotas for OBC women, for Dalit women, for Muslim women; quotas for Muslims per se — coining such crude slogans as “jung aur jihad”, they have become the disagreeable opposition to the Women’s Reservation Bill.
When the Bill was moved in the Rajya Sabha, the broader middle class mood was shaped not by the intrinsic value or goodness of the proposed legislation but by the quality of the opposition to it. In a sense, it was a replay of the Shah Rukh Khan-Shiv Sena battle. Hostility to the Sena forced even Shah Rukh agnostics to stand up for him. This is precisely what the Yadavs did to the Women’s Reservation Bill.
The fundamental argument is this. Parliament represents the supreme consciousness and collective wisdom of a democratic society. Reservation in a national legislature, and restricting competition in the contest to win a place in that legislature, is decidedly different from quotas for traditionally deprived sections in the job market or from affirmative action during college admissions. In a sense, it seeks to carve up that magical and indivisible attribute: popular sovereignty.
There is a line of separation between Parliament and even other representative bodies. Indeed, reservations and quotas for women — and OBC, MBCs, and of course SCs and STs — at the panchayat level can be lived with. A panchayat member, a municipal corporator and even an MLA are, at the end of the day, service providers. They attend to their constituents, sort out healthcare and water problems and monitor the delivery of public goods.
In India, this is often what MPs too are called upon to do. Yet, this is not how it should be and, hopefully, not how it always will be. Someday, when Indian democracy matures, the Lok Sabha will shrug off the extras and restore itself to its core mandate: deliberative legislation and providing crucial inputs to policy making. That is what distinguishes parliament from any other institution in a democracy.
Historically, there have been several instances in several countries of exclusion of particular groups from the process of entering the national legislature. In its earliest days, the chance to vote and to win votes in the US was limited to propertied white males. Yet, the chipping away at this restriction, the expansion of human freedom to ensure equal access to every corner of the supreme law-making body of the land was the ideal that drove democratic endeavour.
This is where the women’s reservation amendment comes into conflict with the philosophy, though not quite the letter and legality, of the Constitution. Far from aspiring to a society that would be so egalitarian that even SC and ST seats in the Lok Sabha would be free to all, it constricts further, and institutionalises segregation — strong word, but appropriate — for all times to come.
Yet, let’s face it, other than a handful of pernickety folk, nobody’s really exercised on these lines. Why? To some degree this is because nobody wants to appear politically incorrect. Even so, there are two other reasons, more solid ones.
First, even those who acknowledge the 33.3 percent quota is a bad idea concede the suggested alternatives would probably not have been feasible in the Indian context.
Talk of two-member constituencies or increasing the strength of the House was unworkable. Indians didn’t really want a 700-strong Lok Sabha and an incremental VIP population down the line in the states.
Leaving the quota to parties would seem fair in a neat two-party democracy — such as, say, Australia — where both parties contest about all seats. In India it would have meant the Samajwadi Party nominating men for all of Uttar Pradesh’s 80 seats and women for all of West Bengal’s 42 seats (where the party counts for nothing) and pretending it had fulfilled its one-third commitment.
Suggestions that parties be forced to nominate women candidates for a third of the seats where they won the most votes — above a defined benchmark of perhaps 20 percent — or that individual states be allowed to put in place an OBC sub-quota as per the OBC population in the state were deemed too complicated and open to political misuse.
Second, perhaps erroneously, middle class opinion is confusing support for the Women’s Reservation Bill with a craving for the strengthening of national parties. Consider the context. Twice previously the Bill was thwarted by OBC strongmen. On the first occasion they were running the United Front government (1996); the next time was when they held the veto on the NDA government (1999). This was in the 1990s, when both the Congress and the BJP were defensive on the OBC-isation of the polity and in awe of the energies of Mandalisation.
TODAY, THE situation is markedly different. In 2009, the Yadavs were trounced in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Their intermediate caste comrades in the south — HD Deve Gowda in Karnataka and N Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh — were also marginalised. The sun is setting on Mandal and on a certain type of muscleflexing, blackmail-centric regional politics. The Women’s Reservation Bill suddenly seems to have become a weapon to put the Mandal parties in their place.
Yet, it would be foolhardy to believe that rough-and-ready OBC men are going to be replaced by “sensitive” and “good-natured” upper caste women. It is more likely that the first lot of seats that are reserved will see a deluge of family candidates: wives, daughters and sisters. In some cases — Sonia and Rahul Gandhi; Maneka and Varun Gandhi — neighbouring seats may be exchanged every 10 years.
Having said that, it is also likely that of the 181 women who enter the Lok Sabha, there will a 30-40 strong bunch who will be worthy women in their own right and constitute good parliamentarians. However, will a few good women justify the 33.3 percent quota? For some people, the answer must always be “No”.
From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 11, Dated March 20, 2010