Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Looking Beyond Zenana Dabba Politics- Need to Improve Provisions of Women’s Reservation Bill

Now that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised on the floor of the House that the women’s reservation bill will be enacted at the earliest, we can be sure women will soon occupy 33% of the seats in parliament because he is not known to make empty promises. But I sincerely hope he will go about it in a democratic manner and not try to shove the existing reservation scheme down everyone’s throat, as the Congress Party under pressure from Left parties tried to do. The Bill in its present form is a classic example of the growing gap between pious promises and actual results of government policies and legislation in India.

We need a thorough debate on the proposed legislation so that some of the glaring infirmities and defects inherent in the Bill presented by the UPA government can be removed before it becomes law, especially since it requires an amendment to the Constitution.

The Bill provides for reservation on a rotation basis through a lottery system, which means that:

·   Two-thirds of the incumbent members will be forcibly unseated in every general election and those remaining will remain in limbo till the last moment.  Such compulsory unseating violates the basic principal of democratic representation and is fair neither to men nor to women. It jeopardises the possibility of effective planning to contest by nurturing a political constituency for both male and female candidates. 

·    Women will be ghettoised and forced to fight elections only against other women.  This will deny them the legitimacy of being mainstream politicians.

·     As male legislators will be forced to surrender their seats for a term to women, those who have worked hard to nurture their constituency, are likely to insist that the seat be given to a woman of their family. Since a seat will be reserved once in 15 years, males who will be pushed out of their constituency are likely to field their own female relatives or even  proxy candidates as a stopgap arrangement and women will not get the chance to cultivate deep roots in their constituency. 

·    That is how we have dominance of Biwi-Beti-Bahu brigade in our elected bodies, even at the panchayat and zila parishad level where this rotation system has already been imposed. Go anywhere in rural India and you find panchayats dominated by “Pati Panchas” and “Pati Sarpanchas”—that is while women have been elected to the seat, the real business is in the hands of their husbands.

     (For a more detailed analysis of the flaws in the UPA government proposed Reservation Bill & MANUSHI's alternative Bill, see http://www.manushi.in/articles.php?articleId=1100#.U8UfppSSyE4)

   In recent years, as India goes through its own version of sexual liberation, a new trend is all too visible:Girlfriends and mistresses of powerful politicians are now demanding that they be rewarded with seats in state assemblies and even parliament as quid pro quo for their services. In the absence of inner party democracy, grass root level workers rarely rise to leadership roles. In such a situation, women who are patronised by key power wielders are more likely to get tickets and catapulted to high positions on account of their intimacy with patriarchs in the party. This sends a very wrong signal to the rest of women. When women enter into humiliating relationships with men and compete with each other for male patronage in order to grab power positions, there is no scope for gender based solidarity which alone can enable women to acquire power as a group.

·   Finally, this Bill is completely silent about women’s representation in Rajya Sabha and Legislative Councils. It is unfortunate that the UPA Government under pressure from the CPM & foreign funded feminist NGOs did not take several more viable alternative proposals that have been mooted in the last few years for enhancing the representation of women in legislatures. The Alternative Bill proposed by MANUSHI, CSDS and Loksatta had received the endorsement of the Election Commission and several political parties who are opposed to the UPA tabled reservation Bill. (For a comprehensive critique of the existing Bill and a detailed account of the Alternative Bill see: http://www.manushi.in/articles.php?articleId=1100)

This Bill  proposes that a law be enacted amending The Representation of the People Act, 1951, to make it mandatory for every recognized political party to nominate women candidates for election in at least one-third of the constituencies. In the event of any recognized party failing to nominate one-third women candidates, for the shortfall of every single woman candidate, two male candidates of the party shall lose the party symbol and affiliation and all the recognition-related advantages. This Bill has the following plus points:
·     Firstly, parties will be free to field women candidates where they can offer a good fight rather than in pre-fixed lottery based constituencies, where they may or may not have viable women candidates. Thus there is flexibility and promotion of natural leadership.

·   Women candidates will be contesting both against female and/or male candidates of rival parties. The democratic choice of voters will thus not be restricted to compulsorily electing only women candidates in one-third constituencies while 2/3rd constituencies will be treated as male monopoly.

·     Unlike with the lottery system of reserved constituencies, in which women’s presence is likely to get ossified at 33% since there would be resistance to letting women contest from non-reserved constituencies, this model allows for far greater flexibility in the number and proportion of women being elected to legislatures. If women are candidates for one-third of all seats contested by each party, theoretically they could even win the vast majority of seats - all on merit.

·     Our Alternative Bill also obviates the need for a quota within a quota as is being demanded by certain OBC parties. Since the onus of fielding women candidates will be left to each party, those who are concerned about increased representation of OBC and BC women can field as many BC/OBC women as they think appropriate.  Given the prevailing electoral arithmetic, OBC/ BC communities have a great numerical edge over so-called upper castes.  That is how most of our state legislatures are heavily dominated by OBC/BC men even without a reserved quota for them.  The same caste arithmetic will work in favour of women of these communities.

The rotational reservation scheme is likely to face endless delays and obstructions because it requires an amendment to the Constitution, which mandates a 2/3 vote in favour of the Bill in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.  Thereafter, it has to be ratified by at least half of the state legislatures.  Given the overt and covert opposition to this Bill within all parties, including the BJP, the Bill will face endless hurdles and delays along the way.  By contrast the Alternative Bill proposed by Manushi can be passed by a simple majority in the two Houses since all it requires is an amendment to the Representation of Peoples’ Act.

However, whatever the form and shape the women’s reservation law takes, we cannot overlook the tragedy inherent in the fact that 67 years after independence women need to seek the quota route to entry in politics. This acquires more poignancy by the fact that at the time of independence when the new constitution was coming into force, most prominent women leaders refused to accept the principle of reservation as a route to political power. They did so in the belief that as in the Mahatma Gandhi led freedom movement, they would be able to carve out a respectable space for themselves without being offered crutches and crumbs. While in post-independence India women have been successful in entering all other professions on the basis of merit, politics is one field where they have remained marginalised. This is because a polity where money and muscle power dominates doesn’t make space even for honest men and is therefore intrinsically hostile to women as a group. Only those who can outperform or gang up with men in crime and corruption are likely to survive in the existing scheme of things. Narendra Modi understands better than anyone else that radical governance and electoral reforms are needed to cleanse our politics of crime and corruption. That alone will make politics women-friendly.

For our Power Point Presentation on this issue see....

An edited version of this article was published in The Indian Express on 15-07-2014: