Thursday, March 18, 2010

Looking Beyond The Battle Of The Sexes

Political Reservation for Women?

By Barun S. Mitra

It was to be a historic day. Monday, 8 March 2010, was the centenary of the International Women’s Day. And the governing coalition in India wanted to present the country with a constitutional amendment to empower women, by reserving 33% of the seats for women in national and state legislatures. At the end of the day, the Law Minister acknowledged that it was national day of shame, as a few unruly MPs in Parliament, particularly in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house, 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 the government promising to bring further amendments to the bill. But it has also exposed the widening gap within the governing allies, and it is likely to be a close race in the Lok Sabha, the lower house. Increasing women’s participation in politics sounds like a fine idea in principle. But its implementation would have grave consequences for the country’s quality of governance and political culture.
Disrupting the proceedings in the legislator has become a routine by political leaders of all hues over the past quarter century. Now, a constitutional amendment is being attempted with the aim of transforming Indian politics that would only further distort and disrupt the democratic process in the largest democracy in the world.

On the face of it, there seems to be a super majority in the Parliament for the women’s reservation bill, with some of the dominant parties on both sides of the political divide agreeing to support the bill. And the political leadership of the governing and oppositions formation, have also expressed a desire to have a political debate in Parliament on such an important constitutional amendment rather than having it passed by sheer numerical strength of the parties in the legislature.

But over the years, parliamentary debates have been devalued to the extent that on most important issues debates have become irrelevant. This is a consequence of the anti-defection law which was passed by the Congress government of Rajiv Gandhi in 1986, when it had an unprecedented majority in Parliament. Under this law, a legislator can afford to defy his party’s whip on any specific legislative business, only at the cost of getting disqualified from the house itself.

The Parliament is the supreme forum where debates are supposed to be free and frank, enlightening the august members and the citizens of the different perspectives and priorities. And for the debates to be meaningful, it is imperative that members have the freedom to change their mind if they are persuaded by evidence and arguments placed by others. But if an honest change of mind leads to possible disqualification from house itself, then it is not a surprise that debates have been completely devalued. And if arguments are not the preferred weapon in the debating chamber of Parliament, then strong arm tactics, such as muscle and lung power become the inevitable tool to register one’s protest, and disrupt the proceedings. Numbers in the legislature has become the most dominant aspect of democracy, not quality of political debates. Not surprising, the politics has lost its shine!

It was believed that the anti-defection law would help restore respect for political principles and bring discipline to political parties; instead, it has led to empowering the party leadership, and making a mockery of parliamentary procedures.

Almost twenty-five years later, a ruling coalition again led by the Congress party is bearing the fruits of that most anti-democratic constitutional amendment. And it has happened, over another piece of constitutional amendment, where the good intention of encouraging greater participation of women in high political office, is being touted as sufficient condition for changing the constitution. But the road to hell is often paved with good intention!

The underlying hypocrisy of this amendment and the way it has been pushed has all been thoroughly exposed.

First, on the face of it, there is apparently wide support among major political parties on the question of women’s participation in politics. At the same time, there is a wide spread belief, that there are many members of Parliament cutting across party lines who are apprehensive of the consequences of this amendment. Nor can the opposition to the bill be explained away by merely pointing to vested interest among the male members of Parliament.

Because, if there is indeed such a political and social support for greater participation of women in politics, then nothing prevented political parties to choose more women candidates, and also nominate more women from constituencies where each party has stronger presence, enabling more women to enter the legislation. In that case, there would be hardly any reason for any constitutional amendment to achieve this goal.

But the parties don’t give tickets to too many women, because not many women are seen to be able to win election on their own strength.

Secondly, it is believed that giving women greater participation will somehow change the status of women in the country. It is another story, that having one of the first women Prime Ministers in the world, in the mid-1960s, did not really change the fortune of 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.

Thirdly, there are women leaders like Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu, and Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, who have been able to come up on their own on the political map of the country, in the existing political environment through persistence and political acumen. D Then there are others Sushma Swaraj, Vasundhara Raje, Brinda Karat, and others who have left their mark. And of course, there is Sonia Gandhi, who despite the family name, had to struggle to revive the political fortunes of her party. None of these women, quite like their eminent predecessors in politics, from history and pre-Independent India, needed political reservation to find their own space. So, in the name of empowering women, this bill is actually is very paternalistic, perpetuating the belief that women cannot make it in politics on their own.

Fourthly, 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 historic wrong, 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 sectional lines. 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 electorate was debated and rejected.

In the FPTP system, with constituencies inhabited by great diversity of people, with different ethnic, religious, caste, linguistic, and other sectional fractures, every candidate has to try and build a social and political coalition in their constituencies, in order to win the support of sufficiently diverse population, and to have a reasonable chance of winning the election. This is because no sectional group enjoys complete dominance in any constituency. It is this tendency to merge the sectional divide among the population that has been the hall mark of Indian democracy, where diversity has only strengthened the political institutions.

If India is to tread the path towards ensuring representation according to the diversity of the population, by adopting a kind of proportional electoral system, then the social coalition will inevitably breakdown, leading to increased political instability. The demand for sectional quota within the women’s quota is a logical demand in that direction. And the next step could be to demand political reservation for men as well, along sectional lines.

That would be the end of the idea of India, and such a direction should not be attempted without a complete constitutional review and require rewriting the basic premise of the constitution.

Fifth, it is said that there is a potential political dividend by giving greater space for women, and women as a class would vote enmass for parties that support that section. This is vote bank politics at its worst, and is completely futile. Sectional mobilization has rarely worked politically, and could never be sustained.

The BSP has had to broaden its base from the narrow caste base of dalits, in order to have a realistic chance of winning at the election. The BJP realized that mobilizing on the Hindu identity is not an assured recipe for political success, although over 80% of the country men may profess to follow that broad religion. Likewise, there is no national constituency for women, just as there is none for men! Mrs Indira Gandhi lost the election in 1977, despite being projected as the goddess Durga. And the 18 month emergency rule only exposed the dictatorial trait in her leadership. Being a woman leader was of little consolation to the population, in a country where half the population is necessarily women.

Sixth, 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. In deed, it led to the creation of a generation of leaders who were pliable and dedicated more to the party than to the people. The leadership among some of the other historically oppressed sections of society emerged as they mobilized politically, and not because of any reservation, and created their own political territories.

This of course raises the question, if the social situation is not really conducive for political reservation for women, if the electoral outcome are not really assured, if the constitutional implications are grave, if in any case, the political parties are free on their own to promote greater participation of women in politics without any change in the law, why is there such a demand for reservation for women in legislature?

Just as a bikini hides more than it reveals, the women’s reservation bill has masked the most fundamental, but politically incorrect aspect of this constitutional amendment.

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. At one level, this will reduce political accountability, since, most of the 2/3 of the sitting members of the legislature may have to surrender their seats, under a rotational reservation for women. 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 if it dilutes the idea of democratic accountability, then it could fall foul of the basic feature doctrine laid down by the Supreme Court.

There is only one set of beneficiaries in such a system where the voters are not in a position to assess the performance of their representative, and the parties have to constantly search for new candidates, where no inner party democracy prevails in the country. Consequently, 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 polity, with political loyalty at a premium, this is a misguided attempt by party leaders to keep control over their flock.

If the anti-defection law introduced by Rajiv Gandhi contributed to the demise of parliamentary debate, it is indeed tragic that Sonia Gandhi is now attempting to push through a constitutional amendment that will end the character of representative democracy in India. Rajiv Gandhi’s legacy has long evaporated as the position of his party slipped. There can be no doubt that Sonia Gandhi has been able to revive the fortune of her party in the past decade. Yet she may not be able to make much political capital on this women’s reservation law, because women, like men, are unlikely to be act as a voting block. So can this really be her political legacy!

The debate in Rajya Sabha have already exposed the cross cutting line of fractures. Many of the partners of the ruling coalition have deserted the government, while many in the opposition have come to the government’s aid. And this is in the Upper House where reservation will not apply at all! This only makes the challenge in the Lok Sabha, that much greater, and may severely test the political future of the present government during the remaining four years of the term.

What was also interesting was the total absence of substance in the few hours of debate, where the details of the proposed bill were hardly discussed, as the MPs focused on rhetoric in an attempt to score political points much beyond the House. Afghanistan and Rawanda were being presented as models women’s empowerment in the India’s temple of democracy!

Rajiv Gandhi, enjoyed unprecedented majority in Parliament, and had the anti-defection amendment passed with hardly any opposition. Sonia Gandhi has now cobbled up a very unique cross party coalition, which could carry the women’s reservation bill. But constitutional democracy is not just about numerical strengths. If democracy is to be reduced only to a numbers game, then it is only a matter of time before democracy will degenerate in to mob rule. Open and unrestricted debate is the most fundamental requirement of a vibrant and plural democracy.

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

At a time when the rest of the world is beginning to appreciate the democratic miracle that is India, it is indeed ironic that the political leadership in India is seeking to undermine the democratic character of the country, to further its own narrow political interest at the cost of the country.

But even the darkest clouds have some silver lining. An unintended consequence of this intended attempt to instigate greater political churning in each constituency, by the proposed system of rotation of reserved seats, may actually unleash a deeper quest for democratization at the grassroots level within political parties, as new entrants seek to establish themselves. If this happens, the political leadership at the top may get a severe jolt. But whether this will happen will only be know if it happens. Until that time, of course, the political leadership will be able to exercise a much greater control over the party.

In this apparent political battle of the sexes, symbolism has replaced substance. Political masters, unfortunately, continue to believe that women are a plaything at their hands. The more things seem to change, the more they remain the same!

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