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Making place for women

If parties are sincere about the women’s reservation bill, why hasn’t there been a minimal debate about its flaws and possibilities?

It may turn out that a thorough debate on these proposals would eventually recommend  the existing draft of the women’s reservation bill. But a debate is essential, so that whatever method is adopted acquires  the legitimacy that  only political  articulation provides. PTI It may turn out that a thorough debate on these proposals would eventually recommend the existing draft of the women’s reservation bill. But a debate is essential, so that whatever method is adopted acquires the legitimacy that only political articulation provides. PTI

If parties are sincere about the women’s reservation bill, why hasn’t there been a minimal debate about its flaws and possibilities?

The Congress manifesto commits the party to “the enactment of the Women’s Reservation Bill to reserve 33 per cent of all seats in Parliament and state legislative assemblies for women”. Other parties are sure to have similar, perhaps even more time-bound, pledges.

Those of us who thought that once the bill had in fact cleared one House of Parliament on the watch of the 15th Lok Sabha (in the Rajya Sabha, March 2010) and that the 2014 general election would make good on the promise of electing women to at least one-third of the seats in the 16th did, of course, know we were hanging on to the flimsiest of hopes. But now, amidst an all-round consensus that women’s voter participation has deepened and an almost all-party support for the bill, could the quota finally be a reality?

If so, there has been precious little articulation by incumbent and aspiring MPs and MLAs on how such a quota would be incorporated into the parliamentary framework. The bill has been hanging fire for almost 20 years and the fact that there has been practically no nuancing of its text to address simple concerns (by supporters of the bill too) that it may rupture the constituent-representative relationship at the heart of parliamentary democracy, has led to strong suspicions that there may be a method here. That a poorly drafted bill — it sees a rotation of constituencies reserved for women candidates — itself may be a stalling technique.

All we have by way of public debate is an old proposal to work around the constituency obstacle by having two-member constituencies. In the early years of the Republic — till the Two-Member Constituencies Abolition Act was passed in 1961 and double-member constituencies bifurcated into a reserved and general category seat — in such seats, constituents elected one general category candidate and one from the reserved category. That is, every voter would cast two votes.

There are arguments for and against the idea, mostly against. On the plus side, it would ensure that at least one-third of elected MPs (or MLAs) are women while limiting the adverse repercussions of the lottery on those who aspire to stand from a particular constituency. This would be to the advantage of women candidates too, giving them a chance to establish themselves on their own steam.

The flaws too are evident. One, if there is a very strong candidate in the fray (and it could be the woman fighting on a reserved ticket too, not just the general category person), the others standing against her/ his running mate (party colleague) would have a specific disadvantage. That is, it allows a contestant to get a headstart on account of a party colleague. This is, in fact, a concern voiced by women’s groups. Also, given the scattered nature of identified double-member constituencies, it would privilege parties that are strong in these seats, potentially misrepresenting the mandate.

There could, of course, be a proportionally represented addition to the legislature’s strength, with women elected by a party list in proportion to the votes/ seats gained by the political party. But this would do nothing to change the patriarchal nature of the electoral process.

More viably, political parties could be compelled to give more than 33 per cent of tickets to women, say 45 per cent. Of course, there would be the concern that parties would give weak seats to women. But such is the competitive edge needed in our increasingly multi-cornered contests that every nomination often counts.

It may turn out that a thorough debate on these proposals would eventually recommend the existing draft of the women’s reservation bill. But a debate is essential, so that whatever method is adopted acquires the legitimacy that only political articulation provides — articulation more meaningfully and responsively made than the set-pieces delivered on the floor of the House tailored to fit in with party whips.

In fact, a new book, S. Anand’s meticulously annotated edition of B.R. Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste, serves to remind how vital were debates on assessing electoral representation during the freedom movement. It details the logic behind Ambedkar’s demand for separate electorates and a “double vote” for “Depressed Classes/ Untouchables” in a time-bound manner, so that the right to vote enabled social transformation. The larger point is that numbers matter, but affirmative action has to be about more than numbers.

Similarly, if reservation for women in legislatures is finally guaranteed by the new Lok Sabha — as it hopefully will be — it should be accompanied by legislative deliberation on how to make women’s right to represent most effectively meaningful.

The writer is a contributing editor for the ‘The Indian Express

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