April 1, 2010

The political fallout of the battle of the sexes

Symbolism plays a very important role in politics. So it was symbolic that on Monday, March 8th, 2010, the centenary of the International Women’s Day, the governing UPA coalition wanted to present the country with a constitutional amendment to empower women, by reserving 33 percent of the seats for women in national and state legislatures. And it was also indicative of things to come when, at the end of the day, the law minister acknowledged that it was national day of shame, as a few unruly MPs, particularly in the Rajya Sabha, created such a ruckus that the house had to be adjourned six times without conducting much business.

The bill was adopted in the Rajya Sabha the next day, with a overwhelming majority of 186 to 1, out of a total strength of 225, with some of the opposition parties staging a walkout. The government promised to bring further amendments to the bill, and also decided to wait till after the passing of finance bill in the ongoing Budget Session of Parliament, rather than undertake the adventurous constitutional amendment immediately in the Lok Sabha.

While hardly anyone is opposed to the idea of greater political participation by women, yet the political and intellectual divide over the bill can hardly be papered over. Its implementation would have grave consequences for the quality of governance and political culture in the country.

With the major political parties from the governing and opposition sides having expressed their support for the bill, the passage of this constitutional amendment should have been a simple matter. Yet it has not been a smooth sailing for this bill, illustrating the political hypocrisy that underscores the apparent sense of unanimity that surrounds the bill.

The bill had been pending for about 14 years, and many political parties routinely vouched for it in their election manifesto over the past decade. Despite the obvious divide over this issue, there had hardly been any attempt to seriously discuss and explore the implications of this proposal, even within the political parties.

First, it shows that party leaders responsible for drafting their manifestos rarely take that document seriously enough, and therefore do not feel the need to consult even their own party candidates about the key provisions. The candidates take the cue, and focus only on winning elections, not on the policy agenda. There are major political parties that have given up preparing election manifestos altogether.

Secondly, the hollowness of the political consensus stood exposed from the fact that without the fear of disobeying the party whip and attracting the penalty of disqualification from the house under the anti-defection law, the women’s reservations bill could not be passed in parliament. There was no substantive debate on any of the real clauses of the bill in the Rajya Sabha, except perfunctory commitment to gender equality. Afghanistan and Rwanda were presented as models of women’s empowerment in the India’s temple of democracy.

So, the third point that emerges is that under the anti-defection law, parliamentary debate itself has become a casualty. After all, what is the purpose of a debate if under the discipline of the party whip, parliament is turned only in to a number counting chamber. Should it come as a surprise, then, that debates have been increasingly displaced by disruptions in the supreme debating chamber of the country?

Fourth, if there was genuine widespread political and social support for reservation of seats for women in legislatures, would such a constitutional amendment be necessary at all. Nothing prevents the political parties from choosing more women candidates, and nominating more women from constituencies where they have strong presence, thereby enabling more women to enter the legislatures. Parties do not give too many tickets to women because they do not see women as being able to win election on their own strength.

Fifth, it is argued that putting more women in legislatures will somehow change the status of women in the country. It is another matter that having one of the first women prime ministers in the world, in the mid-1960s, did not really change the fortunes of most women in India. Some of the worst forms of discrimination and deprivation of women continue to take place, with not many politically active women raising their voice against the daily atrocities.

Sixth, there are women leaders like Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu, and Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh, who have been able to rise on their own on the political map of the country through persistence and political acumen. Others like Sushma Swaraj, Vasundhara Raje and Brinda Karat have been vocal and visible. And there is Sonia Gandhi, who despite the family name, had to struggle to revive the political fortunes of her party. None of these women needed political reservations to find their own space. So, in the name of empowering women, this bill perpetuates the belief that women cannot make it in politics on their own.

Seventh, the bill raises a fundamental question about the nature of India’s representative democracy. If the reservation of constituencies for SC and STs were considered a temporary anomaly necessary to correct some historical wrongs, the reservation for a section of the population, the women, inevitably undermines the first past the post (FPTP) election system that India had adopted. The bill raises the prospect of fundamentally moving India towards a proportional representation system dividing the population on sectoral lines. The clamour for caste and minority quota within the women’s quota is a logical step in that direction. This would be a fundamental change from the basic design of the constitution, and the debates in the constituent assembly, when the notion of separate electorates was debated and rejected.

Eighth, from the past political experience, it is clear that reserving seats for SC and STs did not lead to the development of authentic political leadership within those communities. Indeed, it led to the creation of a generation of leaders who were pliable and dedicated more to their parties than to the people. The leadership among some of the other historically oppressed sections of society emerged only as the newer leaders mobilised politically, and not because of any reservation, and created their own political territories.

Ninth, it is said that there is a potential political dividend by giving greater space for women, and women as a class would vote en masse for parties that support that section. This is not only vote bank politics at its worst but is completely futile. Sectional mobilisation has rarely worked politically, and could never be sustained. There is no national constituency for women, just as there is none for men.

This of course raises the question, if the social and political context is not conducive why do we have such a demand for reservation for women in legislature.

Everyone agrees that the proposal will significantly change the political contour of India. At one stroke, by rotating the constituencies reserved for women, an enormous political churning will be triggered. Powerful political leaders, legislators who may have nurtured their constituencies seriously for years, will be undermined at a stroke. In effect this will disempower the voter, and reduce the incentive for the elected representative to be seriously concerned with the issues affecting the constituencies. This alone could be a ground for testing the constitutionality of this amendment, because it dilutes the idea of political accountability and representative democratic character, it could fall foul of the basic feature doctrine laid down by the Supreme Court.

In a system where the voters are not in a position to assess the performance of their representative, the parties have to constantly search for new candidates and where there is no inner party democracy there will be one set of of beneficiaries. The proposal to reserve and rotate a third of the legislative seats for women is mainly an attempt by entrenched party leaders to hide behind the fairer sex, to further empower their own authority over the lesser members of the party in the legislature. In an era of coalition politics and fragmentation of the polity this is a misguided attempt by party leaders to keep control over their flock.

Ironically, the bill has also exposed the weakness of the political leadership in all the major parties. No one doubts that Mrs Gandhi’s writ runs in the Congress party. But even she is counting on the anti-defection law to get her will enforced among her party MPs. And despite all her authority within her party, she will not find it easy to replace so many of her MPs and aspiring candidates with women of her choice, without the force of law behind her. The situation is the same within all parties, which is the main reason why entrenched party leaders are supporting this bill.

If the anti-defection law has undermined democracy within the legislative chambers, the rotational reservation for women, with its attendant political turnover, will undermine the democratic process outside.

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